We get so wrapped up in our lives sometimes that we fall into the habit of merely taking care of our pets -- feeding them, keeping them healthy and cleaning up after them. And that's a shame, not just for the pets, but for ourselves as well. We're missing out on the best our animals have to offer us when we just go through the motions.
I was thinking about this the other day, in the middle of yet another book deadline, when I realized it had been a while since I had sung to my pets. The new addition, Patrick the Senegal parrot, didn't even have a song of his own. That's how bad things had gotten.
I knew these were problems that had to be immediately remedied.
You have to understand that I take my work seriously, even when it requires me to be seriously silly. What would make other pet lovers feel good about being silly when it comes to their pets? I wonder a moment, and then I know: reading that not only is someone else just as big a nut, but also that she makes a living at it. See? Don't you feel better?
The idea of pet songs didn't start with me. The late dog-trainer Job Michael Evans used to encourage people to use an advertising jingle, substituting their pet's name for the product. Take the old McDonald's jingle "You, You're the One," for example (if you're old enough to remember it, that is, and I most certainly am), and put in your pet's name everywhere you can: "Max, you're my Max/Max is the only reason/I like to walk/with Max in every season." That was a song I made up for my brother's Lab once, when he was visiting for a while. He loved it.
I take a less commercial approach with Andy, my aging Sheltie. His color is really called blue merle, but to the non-dog world he has always looked like a mottled gray. To the tune of "You Are My Sunshine," I croon: "You are my Andy/My lovely Andy/You make me happy/Because you're gray."
The big retriever, Benjamin, sweet as can be but not really the brightest, gets his song from the Monty Python "Spam" skit: "Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben/Wonderful Ben! Wonderful Ben!" And the song for the young retriever, Heather (the Princess), is taken from the American classic "I'm in Heaven": "Heather! I love Heather! And it's only fair that everyone should see/I am happy when my Heather is with me/I am happy when my Heather is with me."
I don't sing these in public -- well, not usually -- for fear someone will come after me with a net. Yes, I'm crazy, but not certifiably so, not yet anyway. But I don't care. The joy my pets get from these silly songs is wonderfully infectious, and soon even the gloomiest day is brighter for me.
Silly, I've admitted to being, but talented ... maybe not. Patrick's song continues to be a work in progress (meaning, no tune yet and the lyrics need a lot of work): "Patrick, Patrick, my Patrick/Like a hat trick, you are a something nice to see ..." I'll keep working on it.
And should I ever start to feel more embarrassed than silly, I think of a friend whose name and location I will not divulge, for he'd kill me. A brilliant and respected judge, he once wrote a song (melody and lyrics) to his cat on the back of a several cocktail napkins. He recites the whole enchilada to his beloved pet nearly every day. It begins (and I've changed the cat's name, too): "Daniel, Daniel has four feet/Daniel, Daniel, pretty neat!"
Suddenly, my Patrick song doesn't seem so bad.
PETS ON THE WEB
Irene Pepperberg is changing the way folks think about
parrots -- by learning the way parrots think. Pepperberg is on the staff of the University of Arizona, and for more than 20 years she has been studying the way parrots learn and use their knowledge. Her primary subject, an imperious African grey named Alex, knows how to identify objects, count and order around lab assistants. When he talks, he isn't just "parroting"; he's communicating. Check out the Communications With Parrots Web site (www.cages.org/research/pepperberg/index.html) for a fascinating look at Pepperberg's work, along with links to articles about Alex, Pepperberg's own articles and other online resources.
Field mice, squirrels, raccoons, deer ... The more we move into the places where animals live, the more animals seem to be living with us, in ways we'd rather they did not. I haven't met an animal lover yet who enjoys the death of wildlife "pests," whether it's the mouse in a kitchen cabinet or a skunk under the deck. You wish them gone, sure, but dead? Isn't there another way? Yes, and you'll find the answers in "Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living With Wildlife," by the staff of the Humane Society of the United States (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95). The book offers humane solutions for dealing with dozens of animals, offering alternative to cruel control measures such as glue boards. You don't have to live in the country to use this fine book, either. City dwellers will find plenty on the bane of urban existence: pigeons and rats. It's an excellent resource and a good read, even if you don't have bats in your belfry.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our puppy bucks like a wild horse when we put a leash on her. Any tips on getting her trained? We'd like to start walking her in the neighborhood. -- W.D., via the Internet
A: Your puppy can start wearing a buckled collar from the time you bring her home. I like lightweight nylon collars, inexpensive to replace when your puppy grows and in oodles of fun colors. Check the collar frequently to ensure the fit's not too snug. (And don't forget to attach a small ID tag.)
By the time your pup's 10 weeks old, you can introduce a lightweight leash for a few minutes at a time. Instead of using the leash to drag the puppy to go your way, go the puppy's way for a while, and then bend down and call her to you, sweetly. When she turns and heads in your direction, praise her and then get up and keep going, patting your leg and jollying her along. Introduce a command such as "Let's go" for her to start associating with the idea of heading in your direction.
A few minutes is enough. Try again later in the day, and maybe change direction once, saying "Let's go" and praising when the puppy follows.
The leash can be an important bonding tool, for both puppies and grown dogs. Once your puppy's comfortable with the feel of the leash, try tethering her to you for a few minutes at a time. With a 6-foot leash, slip the leash handle through your belt and then snap it to the puppy. And then go about your business, hands off the leash. Doing so teaches the puppy to keep an eye on you, which in turns reinforces the idea of you as leader.
The leash is a symbol of your leadership, and when you let your puppy chew on the leash, you're letting her chew on your authority. Considering the sharp nature of puppy teeth, you'll also be spending money for new leashes pretty regularly. Neither of these is desirable. So do not let your puppy chew on the leash. Yank it upward an inch or so out of her mouth while delivering a stern "no."
Q: The (hair) mats on our Persian are out of control. I can't get a comb through them, and he doesn't want to sit still for me to work on them. Help! -- M.P., via the Internet
A: The silky hair of the Persian cat mats easily and quickly, and it's easy to not notice a problem until you've really got a big problem. If your cat is nothing but mats, take him to a groomer and have him shaved down. Yes, it's unattractive, but it's by far kinder than working through a coat that's nothing but mats. And besides, it does grow back, and at a pace where you can teach your cat to enjoy grooming again, with tender pats and lots of treats.
If you're just talking about a couple of mats, though, try to work cornstarch or talcum powder into the mess and then grasp it at the base so you know where the mat ends and skin begins. Use a sharp pair of scissors to very carefully slice through the center of the mat a couple of times from the skin outward. You should then be able to tease the mat free -- gently! -- with your fingers and a steel comb. Don't push your cat, though. Work in short session and follow even an unproductive effort with praise, pets and treats.
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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