The following story is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, by which I mean me, because the not-so-innocent will kill me if I hold him up for public disapproval. Let's call him "John" and the dog "Spot."
So my brother John calls with a dog problem. Spot, adopted the age of a year, is a wonderful dog, but if he gets out the front door, he bolts. The first time this happened, John explained, he chased the dog for blocks and finally cornered him. And what did he do at the moment of joyous reunion?
"I spanked him," said John.
To be fair, John's reaction is fairly typical. It's easy to become, shall we say, annoyed at a dog who has led you on a merry chase, making you look the fool in front of neighbors and passers-by. And no doubt it not only seems to make sense, but it also sure as heck feels right to paddle the pet. Besides, he'll learn that way, right?
Wrong. Punishing a dog for running from you is one surefire way to make sure he's even harder to catch the next time. Wouldn't you keep running if you knew you'd get spanked when caught? Of course you would. And that leads to the No. 1 rule of catching a loose dog: Never punish a dog for running away, and never, ever punish a dog for coming to you.
Actually, that's rule No. 2. The first rule is to make sure your dog understands what you mean when you say "come." And that involves training.
Teaching the "come" is easy, in theory. Put your dog on a sit-stay on leash, call his name, say "come," and reel him in with praise (and more praise when he gets to you). So how come the majority of dog owners have to cross their fingers when they call their dogs? One of the reasons is that their dogs fear being caught, as Spot does, but there are a couple of others. And sometimes more than one reason applies.
Perhaps the dog doesn't really know the command. Few people practice the recall as much as they should, even though it's the one command that can save your dog's life. You probably use "sit" a half-dozen times a day, just around the house, but you probably never say "come" when you want your dog to come to you in the house. You probably just use his name. Or maybe not even that, since the opening of the refrigerator door will get you a canine appearance at the speed of light. But the dog doesn't know "come." He knows if he's sitting in just the right place, you may drop something yummy. Big difference.
"Come" is also about respect, and your dog may not have any for you. Dogs aren't idiots. They know their four legs can outperform your two any day, and they know they can get away if they want to. "Come" is where all that work in developing the relationship with your dog pays off. A dog who knows what's expected of him and respects you is going to mind. A dog who knows you're not a deity but a flat-footed slowpoke who couldn't catch a bus is going to treat you like the fool he thinks you are.
How to fix this? Train your dog to come in increments, on-leash and on longer leashes and lighter lines still. Get a trainer's help if you need to. Never let him get into a position where he learns that you really can't do much about it when he bolts. Practice, not just in formal training but in everyday life. Build on your successes. Kneel down and open your arms when calling your dog to make yourself more inviting, and praise, praise, praise.
But what about the untrained dog, like Spot? Never let a dog who isn't reliable on the recall off-leash -- you're putting his life in danger and making certain he'll become even less responsive. If your dog takes off on you, try to use a command he knows well like "sit" instead of "come." Most dogs know "sit" so well they'll plant their rumps, and once they're planted, you can praise and take their collars. Another possibility is to run away from your dog, enticing him to follow you. The chase instinct is very strong in dogs.
Remember, a loose-dog situation is not about dog training, but about dog saving. When you have your dog safely on leash, praise him and make a vow to teach him this most important of commands.
PETS ON THE WEB
When you think "parrot," chances are the image that comes to mind is a macaw, cockatoo or any of the bigger birds kept as pets. But the parrot family also includes some of the most popular small pet birds -- budgies, lovebirds and cockatiels. The "We're Parrots Too!" Web site (www.highwayq.com/wpt) is an excellent collection with up-to-date information about caring for the little guys. Designer, author and editor Krista Menzel has pulled together a great deal of information, including a few thought-provoking articles. Since she makes her living as a graphic designer, it's no surprise the "We're Parrots Too!" site is well-designed and easy to negotiate.
Ever wonder about the medication your veterinarian sends home with your sick pet -- its efficacy or its side effects? Wonder no more. The folks who produce the excellent guide to human medications have now done the same for dogs and cats, and it's a must-have for any pet lover. "The Pill Book Guide to Medication for Your Dog and Cat" (Bantam Books, $6.99) lives up to its claim as the most comprehensive, authoritative and up-to-date guide available on common medications for dogs and cats. Each of the hundreds of entries lists both generic and brand names, dosages and warnings for special pets such as the very young or very old. Fantastic!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our golden retriever is a gentle dog, but the other day when we were walking him (on a leash) he was attacked by a loose dog, a shepherd mix of some sort. He defended himself, but was still hurt and needed stitches. We didn't really know what to do, and my husband was bitten trying to pull our dog away. What is the best way to break up a fight? -- S.B., via the Internet
A: Anyone who has ever walked a dog has experienced that terrifying moment when a vicious, unleashed dog is intent on doing harm to yours. It's a dangerous situation, even for owners of big dogs. For small dogs, it could be a fatal encounter.
While the best strategy is to avoid dogs who appear aggressive -- with erect body stances instead of the relaxed, ears-back attitude of a dog coming over to play -- sometimes there's no escape from a dominant dog.
If the other dog's owner is nearby, demand he put his canine terrorist on leash. Should he be clueless enough to say "mine's friendly," yell back "mine's not" and make your demand again. If you can, bring your dog into a sitting position between your legs, with your hand around his muzzle and your foot near his flank. This removes the "sniff zones" the dominant dog is looking for. Yelling "no!" in a deep voice at the aggressor and twirling your leash like a lasso in front of him will sometimes send him packing, too.
If a fight starts, stay out of it. You could be badly hurt. If you're willing to risk a bite and there's another person to help, pull the dogs apart by their tails -- not their collars. If you're alone and there's a hose nearby, hitting them in chops with a high-volume water spray will usually stop the action.
Q: I would really love to have a sugar glider, but my mom says that they are ugly, and that I can't get one! What should I tell her? H.G., via e-mail
A. Although sugar gliders, small flying mammals, have become popular recently, maybe a compromise is in order. Would you consider a hamster or a guinea pig instead? Both make wonderful pets, and your mom may think them more adorable than the sugar glider.
One way you may be able to convince your mom you're ready for a pet is to take care of a friend's pet while she's on vacation. If you can show your mom you're capable of feeding, handling and keeping a "loaner" pet clean, you might be able to have a pet of your own soon. Good luck.
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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