June is the reason I don't recommend puppies in December.
The Christmas puppy is one of those ideas that seem so perfect, but the months that follow -- with cold, short days -- are the worst for raising and training a puppy. By the time summer arrives, too many of those Christmas puppies are untrained and too often on their way to being unwanted. The "puppy cutes" are long gone, and the boisterousness of adolescence is at its peak.
I get letters every day from people who are ready to give up. "If we can't get him to stop (jumping up, disobeying, digging, barking, chewing), we're going to have to get rid of him," they say.
No phrase sets my teeth on edge like "have to get rid of." I always think: "Is someone threatening your life? You (BEGIN ITAL)have to(END ITAL)? And what's with 'get rid of'? Sounds like you're putting something out for the trash."
The next sentences in these letters almost certainly include a recommendation of the kind of home that would be "perfect" for the dog. One with "more space" or "more time." As if homes are plentiful for former Christmas puppies with energy to burn and absolutely no training or manners. Forget it! You're the one who took responsibility for your pup, and you're the one who'll have to fix the problems you let develop.
Yes, these dogs are fixable, and if you have one of them, you must try. Really, really try. You owe it to the pup you made such a fuss over a few short months ago to be patient and to work to make it right.
The key to getting past the rough spots: training and exercise.
If you've avoided an obedience class so far -- and you really shouldn't have, since puppy classes start for dogs as young as 12 weeks -- sign up for one now. Training may seem to be about control, but it's more about communication. When you train your dog, you're providing a common language, a way to form a strong and healthy bond between you.
Training is for life. Your dog needs to keep learning, and keep using all he has been taught. That doesn't mean you have to make formal obedience sessions a permanent part of your life. Instead, think of creative ways to expand your dog's working vocabulary and integrate the skills he has learned into your life together. Two minutes here, sitting and staying for his supper dish, one minute there, coming from one end of the house to another when you call -- it all adds up.
So get going, and get individual help if you need it. Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a training class, and don't be shy about scheduling a concentrated, private session with a trainer or behaviorist. Having a trainer pinpoint what you're doing wrong can save you plenty of time, and it's a cheaper than replacing a chewed couch.
Along with the training, start exercising your dog. Probably one of the biggest contributors to behavior problems is that dogs don't get nearly enough exercise. Your dog needs 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise that gets his heart pumping, and he needs it three or more times a week to stay fit, burn excess energy and alleviate the stresses of modern life, such as staying alone for hours every day.
Exercise is especially important for dogs with a working heritage such as sporting or herding breeds. They need to move! Playing fetch, jogging, boisterous play with other dogs -- whatever it takes and whatever you can, get exercise into your dog's life. Nothing calms down a "hyper" dog like regular exercise.
If you're having problems taking your dog out on leash for exercise, invest in a head halter along with training. These fairly new contraptions for dogs resemble those used on horses, and both work on the principle that "where the head goes, the body follows." They've made it possible for many people to take their dogs with them.
Get training, get help, get exercise, but above all, get going. Sure, it takes time and effort to raise a dog right, but the payoff is grand. Remember the dog you imagined your Christmas puppy becoming? He's in there still. And it's up to you to turn that dream into reality. Your dog is counting on you.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Direct Book Service's Dog and Cat Book Catalog (www.dogandcatbooks.com) is looking to become the Amazon.com of pet-related books. The company has always been the place to go for the largest selection of pet books, and the knowledge that comes with serving a specialty niche shows in the site's picks for top books in different pet-related categories. This is a great place to look for books on rare breeds, dog sports, natural care and nutrition because the Dog and Cat Book Catalog carries a lot of small-press or self-published books the big guys just won't bother with. You can also order by phone (or request a catalog) by calling 1-800-776-2665.
Toys are not optional equipment for pets. The life of a pet can be very dull, and toys help keep the mind and body happy. Some of the best toys for small pets can be had for little or no money at all. For rabbits and guinea pigs, or cockatiels and other small parrots, the cores from toilet paper and paper towels are wonderful to play with and destroy. Toy keys made of hard plastic are also popular with these pets, and you can usually find them at a better price in the baby section than the pet section of discount stores. Cat-toy freebies include the retainer ring off the caps of plastic milk jugs, along with champagne corks, empty film containers, and empty cardboard boxes or paper shopping bags.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We recently got a new puppy that would rather eat the cat's food than his own. Could this be harmful? -- H. N., via e-mail
Q: I have three cats and one 4-pound Chihuahua. They all like to eat one another's food. But I know that's not good for them, and we don't allow it. Is there any food that they can both eat safely? -- P.J., via e-mail
A: Because cats are true predators, they require high levels of protein in their food, more so than dogs, who are as much scavengers as predators. The protein levels is why dogs love cat food -- and also why they're so fond of cruising for disgusting litter box "snacks."
Cats are better off eating cat food, and dogs are better off eating dog food. For some dogs, the higher protein levels in cat food can cause health problems.
No matter what your pets think, they need to stick to their own food. For large dogs, a cat-sized hole in an interior door will keep food and the litter box off-limits. Small dogs can be thwarted by a baby gate: easy for cats to clear but impossible for small dogs to get around. You can also try elevated dining for the cats -- on a counter, a washing machine or even a sturdy shelf. My friend Jan tipped a milk crate on its side and secured it into a corner with the open side facing the walls. The cats can jump up, over and in, but the dog can only drool from the other side.
Q: My sister asked me to buy her some medicine that makes cat fur beautiful. She didn't know how to spell the name, but it was something that begins with a "c." Do you have any idea what it is and where I can buy it? -- C.R., via e-mail
A: Save your money. Good health, good nutrition and good grooming make a cat's coat beautiful. The answer doesn't come in a bottle.
If your sister's cat has a coat that's less than lovely, encourage her to take her pet to the veterinarian. Skin problems can make animals miserable and may be the symptom of a serious health problem -- as may be a cat's failure to keep himself well-groomed. Proper diagnosis and treatment by a veterinarian is the only way to figure out exactly what's going on and get it fixed.
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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