Until recently, the sports open to dogs and their owners mostly have had their roots in the history of the breeds involved. Hunting dogs have field trials, sheep dogs have herding trials, guard dogs have protection trials. Even the sport of obedience, which should be open to all, has been mostly off-limits to mixed-breed dogs.
But a fresh breeze is blowing in the world of dog sports, attracting an ever larger pool of dogs and owners drawn by new sports that have little in common with the tradition-bound and often cliquish competitions of old. Easy to understand and open to any kind of dog regardless of size or breeding, flyball and agility are the hottest dog sports around.
Author Cynthia Miller thinks the appeal can be summed up in a single word: fun. The events are just plain entertaining for dog, owner and spectator alike.
"There's increased interest in the more fun-oriented dog sports," says Miller, the Yuba City, Calif., author of "Canine Adventures: Fun Things to Do With Your Dog" (Animalia Publishing, $22.95). "I would say agility is No. 1. It's action-packed, and you can tell the dogs are so happy."
Agility is based on the equestrian sport of show jumping, evolving into a timed obstacle course with uniquely canine twists such as teeter-totters and tunnels added to the mix. The competitions are divided according to the height of the dog, with jumps adjusted up or down accordingly. Flyball is even simpler: a relay race where dogs have to navigate a series of low jumps, step down on ball launcher at the end and race back with the tennis ball.
Flyball and agility are but two of the 34 sports Miller covers in her book, an excellent step-by-step guide for anyone thinking about turning her canine couch potato into an athlete. Although Miller is high on the new sports, she points out that whatever sport you choose can have some surprising results.
"I think people don't realize what their dogs are capable of," she said. "When you say 'training,' too many people think 'military,' an obedience class they drop out of after two or three weeks because the dog doesn't succeed. The dog's still a pain, and he's thrown outside.
"But sports are fun. When people get involved, they want their dogs with them all the time." And the dogs, she adds, become better, well-mannered companions as a result, citing one of her own two dogs as an example.
"I have a Bouvier who doesn't like anything," she said. "Training her to sit, it was like, 'Oh yeah, just make me.' But she loves agility. It wakes up their minds as well as their bodies."
It can all start with a walk around the block, says Miller, who has also worked as an aerobics instructor and personal trainer. When dog and owner are no longer puffing, it's time to move into a class. Agility, after all, requires a certain amount of fitness from the human half of the team, who must run the course with the dog, directing him over the obstacles.
While active breeds such as border collies, Shelties and terriers seem to do especially well in the new sports, Miller says you shouldn't despair even if your dog is a basset hound and you're just about as well-suited for athletic endeavors.
"A lot of people don't want to compete," she said. "They just want to have fun. And there's a place for that."
PETS ON THE WEB
Spring is especially sweet for those who share their lives with turtles and tortoises -- it's the time when these gentle pets come out of their cold-weather sleep. If you're just waking up to the appeal of turtles and tortoises, a couple of Web sites will provide you with what you need to know to care for them properly. Probably the most comprehensive site of its kind is that of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club (www.tortoise.org). This well-organized site offers lots of care information, photographs, and a calendar of events from around the world. Good links, libraries of pictures and sound files round out this very nice site. Felice's World of Turtles (ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/felicerood) isn't quite as complete, but it did reveal the unique point of view of its creator, Felice Rood, founder, president and guiding force of the Sacramento Turtle and Tortoise Club.
Foxtails or other nettles can cause your pet a lot of pain and cost you a lot of money if allowed to burrow into your pet's skin. After a visit to any weed-strewn area, check your pet for these hitchhiking seed pods and pull them out immediately. Favorite hiding places include the ears, nose and between the toes. If your pet starts sneezing or head-shaking after a romp, you've probably missed one, and your vet will have to dig it out. Foxtails never go away. They just dig in deeper, causing problems as they go, so don't delay. To get burrs out of coats, here's a tip from a hunting dog trainer: Apply some Pam nonstick cooking spray to grease up the area, then comb each burr out.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I didn't know seeds weren't a good diet for my cockatiel until I read your column on the subject. How can I change my bird to a healthier diet? So far, I've gotten nowhere. Kirby's a seed junkie. Help! -- K.M., via e-mail
A: Converting a seed junkie to healthy eating isn't easy, but it can be done with patience and perseverance. The first step is to make sure he's in good health before putting him through the stress of such a big change. Birds are adept at hiding illness, and the stress of a diet change may be too much for a bird who's sick. Have your veterinarian go over him thoroughly.
Once you know your bird's in good health, you can start the big switch. Here are a few strategies:
-- Gradually reduce the amount of seeds. Start with a 50/50 blend of seeds and pellets for two to four weeks, then reduce slowly over time. Vary the amounts of pellets, fruit, veggies and seeds offered each day, Be inconsistent in what your bird can expect to see in the food bowl every day.
-- Feed new foods in the morning. Birds are the most hungry when they first wake up, so offer pellets and vegetables exclusively at the start of the day before offering seeds.
-- Set a good example. Birds learn by watching. If you have one bird who is on a healthy diet, let your other bird watch. Another option: Eat in front of your bird. Healthy people food is healthy bird food, too, so share everything except avocados, alcohol, high-fat foods and sweets.
Birds can and do starve themselves to death. During the conversion process, make sure you observe your bird eating; make sure that he is passing feces in his droppings of adequate volume and consistency; and check the muscle on both sides of his keel bone (which runs right down the middle of his chest) to be sure he's maintaining weight. Don't be in a hurry to change your pet's diet. Follow his lead in determining how fast to reduce the amount of seeds in his diet.
My Senegal parrot, Patrick, gets a seed or two as a treat when we watch TV together in the evenings. He loves them, but is quite happy to eat a mix of healthier foods the rest of the time.
Q: Our local shelter won't adopt out an animal that hasn't been spayed or neutered, and that includes puppies and kittens. I didn't realize you could do this to baby animals. Is it safe? -- C.R., via e-mail.
A: Too many people who adopt shelter animals don't fulfill their promises to spay or neuter their new pets. It's often not intentional; they just forget or don't get around to it, and soon there's a new litter for the shelter to deal with.
This revolving-door situation -- single pet out, multiple pets in -- is a demoralizing disaster for the folks at the shelters, since many of these babies won't find homes. Shelters know the best way to save pet lives is to prevent them from being born, which is why many have started spaying and neutering pets before they leave the shelter. No more "oops" litters.
And yes, the new rules often include kittens and puppies. Spaying and neuterings can now be safely performed on pets as young as 8 weeks, and the procedure has been endorsed by prominent veterinary and humane organizations.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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