With the U.S. jobless rate reported recently at 24-year low, perhaps its time to address an unemployment problem no one seems to talk about, even though it affects tens of millions of Americans -- of the canine variety.
The good news is we don't need a government program to set this problem right. The better news is you and your dog will both be happier for the efforts you put into fixing the matter in your own home by finding something for your pet to do.
Dogs have a work ethic that puts the Puritans to shame. We put it there ourselves, through countless generations of selective breeding. No animal has lived and worked as closely with humankind as the dog, and no other has been more tailored to our needs. From the smallest toy breed to the largest wolfhounds and mastiffs, we've created breeds to fill all the jobs we had in mind. Herding, draying, protecting, and hunting prey as small as a mouse and as large as an elk -- wherever we saw a need, we bred a dog for the task.
And now they all sit, these dogs, in back yards and on couches while we're at work. No sheep to herd, no ducks to retrieve, and the terminating of pet rodents strongly discouraged. Thousands of years of selective breeding gone to waste. They're bored. So they dig, they bark, they mope.
It's just not right.
But before you wonder where you're going to put that flock of sheep for your unemployed herding dog, consider that even as our jobs have changed over the years, so have employment possibilities for dogs. While competitions exist to test the instinctive abilities -- such as herding tests and retriever trials, as well as more modern competitions such as agility trials -- I find that a creative approach to work can help fulfill a dog's needs.
Such has been the case in my house with the retriever Benjamin, a young dog who watches lines of migrating birds trace across the sky and gives me a pointed look once they're out of range.
"Hey," he seems to say. "Weren't you supposed to shoot those?"
Since I have no need for dead ducks, I've taught him to use his inbred skills in a way I find useful, creating possibly the world's best laundry retriever. He picks up the socks I drop on the way to the laundry room and at my command drops them into the open washer, along with his plush toys. To be so useful makes him giddy with joy.
Your dog could be just as happy. A friend's dog fetches the tissues when she sneezes and slams doors shut at a word. Following her example, I started to teach Benjamin to fetch the cordless phone, but stopped once I realized dog spit was hard on the equipment and no fun to touch when he finally brought the phone my way. With cold season at hand, we're working on that tissue trick now.
OK, so maybe canine unemployment isn't that pressing a problem. Still, consider that while such tricks may seem silly to some, they can go a long way toward strengthening the bond between you and your pet and making him more responsive and obedient.
Your dog wants to feel useful as much as you do. Train him, praise him, and let him work. You'll both be better for the experience; I promise.
Pets on the Web: Politics from a cat's-eye view? Why not, I say, and could it really be any worse than the legions of somniferous and overpaid pundits? If you suspect that all those argumentative folks in Washington need is an afternoon nap, you'll want to visit the Web site of the Socks The Cat Fan Club, dedicated to "America's first Democat."
The Web site (http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6157/) does push a $12 fan club membership kit, but it contains enough news to keep fans of the black-and-white cat happy. The cat himself, according to the Web site, hasn't been very happy lately, with the recent departures not only of his owner, Chelsea, but also the first lady's press secretary, Neel Lattimore. Socks, the White House reports, "is speechless over Neel's departure."
Don't worry, Socks: Chelsea will be home for the holidays soon.
For a free print copy of the newsletter, send a name and address along with a 32-cent stamp to Socks The Cat Fan Club, 611 South Ivy St., Arlington, Va. 22204-2429.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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