Six more weeks of winter, six days of winter, six more hours of winter, what difference does it make? Six more minutes is sometimes more than I can stand when it's too dark, too cold, too wet to take out the dogs.
I'm a weather wimp. I admit it.
How fortunate for my furry housemates that I learned long ago that mental exercise can be just as satisfying to bored, bounce-off-the-wall pups. Most breeds were developed to work, and few dogs today are asked to. Giving them a job to do is good for them, and they like it.
Last winter, I taught the big retriever, Benjamin, to balance a dog biscuit on his nose, then flip it into the air and catch it on command. Now it's a heck of a parlor trick, performed with plenty of panache. He also knows to "woo-woo" or bark on request, shake hands and -- I love this one -- find every one of his plush toys and put them in the washing machine to be cleaned.
Every trick, whether useful or just plain fun, was born on a gloomy winter afternoon. My oldest dog, Andy, used to delight in jumping tricks -- through hoops, or over other dogs -- until his hips got the best of him. Now his favorite indoor game is finding hidden items, and he's so good that it's obvious his hips may be failing, but his nose sure isn't.
This winter we're working on complicated retrieves where all three dogs are put on "stay" and then only one dog is sent out and must find the right object by name -- Kong, frog, jack, football and so on.
Such games are to dogs what the daily crossword puzzle or the latest computer game is to us. They have to think, they have to learn, and when they get it right, their sense of accomplishment and joy is palpable, and contagious. And as pleasurable as these games are, with plenty of praise for a job done right, they also reinforce a dog's place in the pack structure we humans call "family." Dogs need to know there's someone in charge. A gentle, loving, fun leader, but a leader nonetheless.
Start with a simple game and build on it. If your dog likes to retrieve, begin with simple in-sight fetching and then slowly make things harder. Add a "stay," then "hide" the toy in an easy-to-find spot, making the game a little trickier as your pet learns you want him to "find," instead of merely "fetch."
Complicated tricks are really lots of little tricks linked together. Benjamin's laundry trick, for example, is a combination of several tricks linked together, including "find" (his plush toy), "paws up" (onto the washing machine), "drop it" (into the washing machine) and "find" (another toy).
To take care of two challenges at once, get your children involved. Trick training is a great rainy-day project for kids. When I was growing up, my brothers and I taught our standard poodle to play hide-and-seek. The dog became so good at it, he could have been hired out to track missing children. (Our games ended not when the dog got old, but rather when my brothers became too big to stuff in tiny hiding places.)
A couple of good references on trick-training and getting children involved: "Dog Training for Kids" ($17.95, Howell Book House/Macmillan General Reference) by Carol Lea Benjamin, and "Dog Tricks" ($12.98, Black Dog & Leventhal) by Benjamin and Arthur J. Haggerty.
Pets on the Web: All this rainy-day gloom-avoidance has me thinking about a couple of people who offer toys to keep your cats from getting bored. The first is Gail Colombo, owner of Cat Faeries (www.catfaeries.com), a one-woman company offering lovely things for cats and the people who adore them. I met Colombo a couple of years ago at a cat show and knew in a flash she was a serious cat-lover. Check out her Web site and you'll know it, too. The site is more than a catalog, offering links to many useful and entertaining cat sites. The Claworks Web site (www.wolfenet.com/(tilde)claworks) is nothing fancy in comparison, but the cat toys offered sure are. Company owner Tom Goodham sent me a few to look at -- colorful, handmade and filled with catnip.
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.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600