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

Play To Learn

How you can turn training time into playtime -- and vice versa -- to benefit your dog and yourself

By Mikkel Becker

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Who doesn’t want a dog with beautiful manners at home and in public, who walks nicely with you, enjoys performing tricks or playing games, and shares an unbreakable bond with you? Sounds like a lot of work, though, doesn’t it? I’m here to tell you that you can “home-school” your dog with activities that turn learning into fun -- for both of you.

Dogs learn best through interactions with their people, after all. A study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports found that dogs rapidly learned the names of new toys when playing with them with their owners, who called the toys by name (“giraffe” or “red ball” or “blue elephant,” for instance) during play. You can use reward-based training to hone your dog’s manners, teach tricks or sports, and provide mental challenges that not only work your dog’s brain, but also help to build the bond between you and improve the ability for the two of you to communicate. Here are three learning games to play with your dog.

1. Follow the leader. Teach your dog to want to walk beside you. Start indoors, with your dog off-leash. As you walk through the house (a narrow hallway is a great place to practice), encourage your dog to stay right beside you -- on either your left or right side -- by offering a treat when she walks alongside you. Reward her any time she places her body next to yours, looks at you or in your direction, or walks in step beside you, her shoulder right at your leg. Keep things interesting by adding frequent stops and turns so she pays attention to where you might move next. Practice just a couple of minutes at a time.

2. Treat toss. Catching treats in midair is a stylish trick that’s fun for dogs, but it also has a practical purpose: It makes it easier to deliver treats as rewards during training. To start, use light, airy treats that catch air and take longer to land on the ground. Think plain popcorn or O-shaped cereal. Start by dropping a single treat just above the dog’s mouth. You can also gently toss it up at a slight arc, allowing your dog enough time to get into place beneath the treat before it falls. Alert your dog that a treat is about to be launched by saying “catch” just before tossing it. As your dog’s mouth-eye coordination improves, increase the challenge by tossing the treat from a greater distance or adding different types and shapes of treats for your dog to conquer.

3. Obstacle course. What better way to celebrate -- or improve -- your dog’s athleticism and agility? And you don’t need any special equipment. It’s easy to set up a course using items you have in your home. Play on a nonskid surface such as carpet or a large area rug; slick floors can cause injury. Here are some ideas:

-- Create a jump by tying a rope or leash between two chairs or other objects. For small or hesitant dogs, lay a mop, broom or wooden dowel on the floor.

-- Encourage your dog to jump through a hula hoop.

-- Create weave poles by standing tall boots or rolls of toilet paper or paper towels in a line, spaced out enough that your dog can weave between them.

-- Drape a blanket or sheet over two chairs to create a tunnel the dog can go through or beneath.

Lure your dog through the course with treats or a favorite toy, and reward him as he completes each obstacle.

All of these activities reward your dog for focusing on you, and that’s the foundation of training for life. Have fun!


Single bird

lays eggs

Q: I’m freaking out because I thought I had a male green-cheeked conure, but “he” recently laid two eggs in a three-day period. It’s just her, so I know the eggs are unfertilized, but is she going to be OK? Is there anything I need to do?

A: Egg-laying might seem to be a normal process for what you’ve now discovered is a female bird, but I checked with expert avian veterinarian Brian Speer, DVM, author of “Birds for Dummies.” He says egg-laying isn’t a desirable activity for single pet birds, so your concern is understandable. Following is his explanation of why that is and some advice on what you can do about it:

“When females lay clutches of eggs without the presence of a male partner (known as chronic egg-laying), it can lead to myriad health problems. The reproductive tract can become exhausted, draining the bird metabolically and physiologically. It can predispose her to egg binding, in which the egg becomes stuck in the reproductive tract, as well as to other physical problems.

“You can take several steps to help change the situations that have her believing it’s time to get in the family way. The biggies include giving a controlled amount of food (birds get in the mating mood when they have an abundance of resources) and avoiding foods high in fat and calories such as seeds, nuts and processed foods; managing the environment by removing nesting-type materials such as shredded paper or boxes that can serve as nests; moving her cage frequently to simulate an unstable environment; and avoiding petting her in areas that can stimulate reproductive behaviors, such as under the wings or on the back, belly or tail. Stick to the head and neck. Your avian veterinarian may have other tips.” -- Dr. Marty Becker

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How pets

signal pain

-- Whether they are cats, dogs, birds or other animals, our pets tend to hide their pain instinctively, to protect themselves from predators. That means we need to be extra-observant to know what’s going on with them. If your pet is behaving unusually -- hiding in your closet, for instance -- she may not feel well or might have an unseen injury. Other subtle signs of pain to watch for include abnormal chewing, unexplained weight loss or gain, avoiding your touch (even affectionate petting!), licking or biting excessively at a certain area, or breaking housetraining. Any time you see your pet exhibit unusual or unexpected behavior, take her to the veterinarian just to make sure everything’s OK.

-- Keeping fish is a fascinating hobby and has the side benefit of lowering stress. Who doesn’t relax at the sight of a tank of fish gliding through their watery environs? And while caring for both freshwater and saltwater fish requires some maintenance, it doesn’t have to be difficult. The key is keeping water free of toxins that can build up when fish excrete ammonia through their gills. Tips for keeping a fish tank clean include feeding small amounts of food only once or twice a day, performing partial water changes twice a week, keeping water at an appropriate temperature -- an expert at an aquarium specialty shop can advise you -- investing in a good filter and air pump, providing enough light daily, and changing the filter cartridge and cleaning the tank and everything in it monthly.

-- Cats are known for being fastidious about grooming themselves, so do they really need any help from us? Yes! Combing and brushing a cat removes tangles and distributes skin oils, and it’s a boon for older, overweight or longhaired cats, who may have difficulty caring for themselves. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.