Looking for a way to keep your dog occupied on those days when it's just too cold outside to play? Consider exercising his mind.
One of the biggest shames in all of dogdom is how few things most people teach their dogs. What many people don't realize is that training is a way of communicating with your dog, of sharing a common language. The more words you both know the meaning of, the more you are sharing your lives.
How many words can your dog know? A lot more than you can imagine, I'm guessing. Consider that dogs who help wheelchair users are routinely trained to perform dozens of different tasks -- more than a hundred in some cases. And if you argue that your dog is not as smart as a service dog, I'll argue back that even if he's only half as smart, he can learn a couple of dozen more things than he knows now.
Besides, tricks are great fun for any dog of any age. While canine whiz kids such as poodles and border collies will pick up things quickly, any dog will catch on eventually, if you're patient, consistent and encouraging. You can teach tricks one at a time or a couple at once, as long as you've time to practice each one a couple of times a day.
Some dogs are better at some tricks than others. A small, agile terrier may find jumping through hoops easier than a bulldog would. And a retriever is probably more willing to hold things in his mouth than is a Pekinese. A basset hound can probably roll over but may find begging a little hard, being a little top-heavy. So think about your dog's form and aptitudes before you start. You may notice something special your dog does that would be entertaining if you can get him to do it on command. You can. Give it a name, use that word when he's most likely to do his thing, and praise him for "obeying." He'll make the connection soon enough.
I did that with Benjamin, the big retriever, who makes a sound that's halfway between a bark and a howl when it's time for his breakfast. I called it "woo-woo" and started saying "woo-woo" just when I could see his mouth preparing to make this sound. When he did, high praise. Now he "woo-woos" on command.
You can dress up tricks a little, too, to make them seem more than they are. I was once at an event where a prize was given for the best dog trick. The winner had a Rottweiler who liked to jump in the air after soap bubbles, which wasn't that big a deal, really, except for the fact that the owner turned it into a trick that had the crowd roaring with laughter. The woman put a ballerina skirt around the dog's middle, with matching pink leg warmers on her back legs and a tiara on her head. She then put some "Swan Lake" in her portable stereo and starting blowing bubbles. The dog's leaps and turns were a million times funnier when so choreographed, and the pair won easily.
Start thinking about your dog's special talents. Next week I'll offer tips on how to teach your pet some basic tricks.
PETS ON THE WEB
Every holiday season folks worry if their poinsettias are poisonous. They're not, even though I got a handful of urgent missives from various animal groups warning people about the plants. Old myths are hard to fight, I guess. Still, your pets can indeed get in trouble with plants commonly found in many homes and yards. Cornell University offers online help, with its Poisonous Plants Web site (www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/plants.html). The site offers links to related lists, including one put together by the University of Illinois (www.library.uiuc.edu/vex/toxic/toxic.htm) that identifies plants by their common names, in case you're not too well-versed on all that genus and species mumbo jumbo.
With the nation in the grip of bitter cold, don't hesitate to help your dog out with a sweater. Yes, it may look silly to some, but for older dogs, those with little body fat (such as greyhounds and whippets) or sparse fur coats, the extra warmth a sweater provides is a kindness. You don't need to make a fashion statement with a leather jacket or a fur-lined collar. A couple of easy-to-wash acrylic knits from your local pet-supply store will do the trick, and fairly economically. Your pet will thank you.
Q: A friend sent me your column about "fur mice." Since you said your Hoover was outmatched, I just wanted to share some information and a cute story. I am a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (they provide assistance dogs for people with disabilities), and I am on an e-mail list with raisers from roughly 20 different organizations. Dog hair, as you can imagine, is a constant battle with all of us, most of whom have more than one dog, plus assorted cats and other animals.
One of the people posted a humorous note about dust puppies -- similar to fur mice, but I think they're more prolific. Her vacuum of choice was the Fantom Fury, and she asked if anyone else had used this wonder vac. Many had and quite a number have since purchased one.
I suggested to the Fantom people that they use a service dog in training in a future infomercial because not only was it good to promote a program that helps people, but also that our goldens (and Labs) could give those Dirt Devil pups a run for cuteness. They came to my house to film back in the first part of December. They will edit all they shot down to about 90 seconds, but they did cover the program and quite a bit about the dogs. It will air in February. If you're up at 3 a.m. with nothing to do one night, look for it.
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that if your Hoover isn't handling your dog hair, you really should try the Fantom. I haven't found anything better to handle the hair on the floor. And the furniture. And in the air. -- K.D., via the Internet
A: Great story! As it happens, I'm often up at 3 a.m., and I'll be looking for that infomercial. It'll be a nice change of pace from the dog-training one and that one about the self-cleaning litter box.
As for the Hoover, I cannot complain. It's a wheezy, gaspy disaster now, but it has been eagerly sucking up drifts of pet fur for more than a decade. I guess it has earned its retirement.
I guess we wouldn't be animal lovers if we didn't find humor in pet hair. My favorite hair story is about a dog club holding its annual award banquet, and on each table was a baggie with some dog hair in it and a note attached that read: "We know you wouldn't know how to have a meal without dog hair, so we've provided some."
As a person who has picked pet fur off most everything from sweaters to butter cubes for nearly three decades, I can relate. I can also relate to something else I heard: "True pet people would send a meal back if they saw a human hair in it, but pick off the pet ones and eat without a second thought."
I'm always delighted to get pet-care tips from readers. Thanks for writing.
Q: I picked out a kitten at the end of summer, a calico, so I knew it was a girl. Guess what? It's not! I thought that wasn't possible. -- C.O., via the Internet
A: Extremely rare, but not impossible. About one in every 3,000 calico or tortoiseshell cats is a male.
The genetic code for a calico or tortoiseshell pattern is found only on the female, or X chromosome. For a cat to be a calico or tortie, it must have two X chromosomes, and that means in the vast majority of cases it's going to be female.
When the calico pattern exists in a male, it's because the cat has something relatively uncommon: three sex chromosomes -- two X, one Y. If both of those X chromosomes carry the calico gene, you're looking at a male calico. The three chromosomes make what is called a Klinefelter male, and they're usually unable to reproduce.
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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