The mechanics of dog training aren't that hard to understand. But to get your dog to mind you consistently and happily, you're going to need dedication and, most of all, a positive attitude.
Dog training is not about eight Thursday-night group classes and the training is over, forever. You never stop training your dog. You teach, and then you practice, in ever more challenging circumstances. You correct the behavior you don't want. And you integrate your dog's lessons into everyday life so what has been learned is never, ever lost. Remember the French you learned in high school? How good are you at it now? If you don't use it, you lose it, and the same can be said of skills you teach your dog.
If you're thinking about training now, chances are you have a dog who's a little out of control -- a canine adolescent, more often than not. You've given up waiting for her to outgrow her bad behavior (they never do!) and figure it's finally time to train her. You're thinking you can't avoid training; it just has to be done, like cleaning leaves out of the gutters.
Now, consider the following: If you have a bad attitude toward training, so will your dog. If you think training is a joyless chore, she'll hate it, every minute. If you walk around jerking on her collar and swearing, she'll wonder what she has done to deserve your anger, and she'll be too busy worrying about that to learn anything.
If you tell her she's stupid, she will be.
Expect success from her and be willing to work for it. Praise her not only for succeeding, but also for trying. Learning is hard for her and stressful. Think of your dog as a person who has just moved to your house from a country where the language and customs are different -- a special kind of foreign exchange student. She was born a dog, after all, and you're asking her to live as a member of a human family. You're asking her to learn the language and follow the rules.
The fact that this feat is ever accomplished at all is nothing less than a miracle. So celebrate it, with her. Consider dog training not as mechanical thing (if you do X, your dog does Y), but as something organic -- alive, interconnected and ever-changing. A well-mannered dog becomes that way from the inside out. "Sit" and "stay" are the least of it, really, and are only the visible manifestations of what that dog is on the inside: a confident, comfortable and secure member of a loving, human pack. A dog who is, quite simply, a joy to live with.
We all get cranky sometimes. If you've had a horrid day at work, a fight with your spouse, or the mechanic just told you that fixing your car will cost $2,700, you're probably better off skipping any efforts at teaching your dog something new. Instead, use your dog to help you ease out of your funk. Play fetch instead, or just hang out with her. Pet her while you watch TV. It's good for your blood pressure.
Tomorrow is another day to train, to continue to strengthen the bond between you.
PETS ON THE WEB
If you really want to understand your dog, study the wolf. From the greatest Dane to the tiniest of toy poodles, there beats the heart of a wolf. A good place to start your appreciation of this magnificent animal is at the home page of Wolf Haven International (www.teleport.com/(tilde)wnorton/wolf.shtml).
You'll know you're at the right place immediately -- your computer will start howling! Wolf Haven is a nonprofit organization in Tenino, Wash., dedicated to conserving the wolf: protecting it in its remaining habits, reintroducing it in its historic habitats, and providing sanctuary for captive-born wolves given up by people who didn't realize how unsuitable these animals are as pets. The site contains gorgeous pictures of the wolves in residence at the sanctuary, along with instructions on how to "adopt" one for a donation as small as $20 a year. Wolf sound files are available for downloading, too.
Because the organization's goals also include education, you'll find lots of information, from links to other sites and lists of suggested reading. This is a site to bookmark and visit again and again.
Everyone loves saving money, and I am no exception. While I do not scrimp on preventive veterinary care or on high-quality nutrition, I have been known to cut some corners on equipment. When I was fostering pets who needed new homes, I shopped garage sales and kept an eye on the newspaper classifieds for the things I needed to house my animal guests. I bought crates and kennel runs for a fraction of their retail value (one crate that retailed for $80, I picked up for $5). Cages for birds, reptiles and rodents, deluxe cat trees -- they're out there if you're patient enough to look. When you get them home, a thorough scrubbing followed by disinfecting with a mild bleach-and-water solution should be enough to put whatever bargain you find back in action in the service of animals.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm going camping, and I don't want my dog to get sunburn. What should I use? -- C.F., via the Internet
A: According to the Veterinary Information Network's (VIN) dermatology consultants, an unscented human sunscreen with no PABA on its ingredient list should fit the bill -- SPF 15 or higher, with SPF 30 preferred. Better still is to keep your pet out of the sun during peak times, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Not all dogs need protection from sunburn. Many just need a little help on their noses (just like people) if they have light-colored flesh there. Shorthaired white dogs, such a white boxers, may need overall application of sunscreen, as do hairless breeds such as the Chinese crested. The VIN consultants suggest if you must take these dogs out in the worst part of the day, a T-shirt isn't a bad idea.
The problem isn't just for dogs, by the way. Some cats have problems with their ear tips, and pot-bellied pigs are also sensitive to sun exposure. Again, keeping them out of the sun is the best idea, but sunscreen will help otherwise.
Q: We have allergies in the family. What is the best small dog to buy? -- S.F, via the Internet.
Q: We've heard the Cornish and Devon Rex breeds of cat are OK for people with allergies. Is that true? -- A.S., via the Internet
A: I wish I could report otherwise, but the truth is there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic pet. Some people say they do better with breeds such as poodles and the kinky-haired Rexes, but don't count on it.
Still, if your allergies are minimal or your desire for a pet is high, you might be able to work it out. I have, living fairly well with both pets and asthma for all of my adult life.
Studies have shown that if a cat is rinsed weekly, or bathed, it is less likely to provoke an allergic reaction. This is how I am able to coexist with my dogs. They are kept clean so their levels of dander are kept down, and so is the amount of junk they carry in on their coats from their trips outside.
Others find they can live with a pet if they designate the bedroom an animal-free zone so they can sleep at night. But that is a tough one if you like to sleep with a purring cat on the bed. My approach is that when I'm not having problems, my dogs sleep in the bedroom. When things are a little dicey, they don't, and I keep the air cleaner running. (My bedroom is kept as clear as possible of dog hair and dander, and other allergy-provoking material, dust and the like.)
Above all, I'd work closely with an understanding allergist. And realize that what the doctor will say is absolutely correct: It's not advisable to add a pet to your family. Working with an allergist, though, will help keep other allergies under control, and give you access to the latest in treatments, such as a promising cat-allergy vaccine now in development.
Incidentally, the decision to get a pet is not one I would make on behalf of an allergic child. Much as I love animals, if I were faced with this decision, as my parents were, I probably would have made the same call: no furry pets.
The risk, I suppose, is that the child will grow up so terribly pet-deprived that he or she will end up a pet columnist, like ... well ... me!
Life is, of course, full of such horrors.
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 Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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