Those who are saddened by the belief that their old dogs can't learn new tricks will be cheered by the story of Andy, who is 13 years old and still learning.
Those who are cheered by the belief that they are smarter than their dogs will be saddened by the story of Gina -- never mind how old -- being thoroughly outwitted by the aforementioned 13-year-old dog.
The story I humbly relate is a classic example of how we humans can cause our own problems when it comes to the behavior of our pets -- and how we can change things for the better if we try.
Andy likes to eat. With arthritis dampening his enthusiasm for playing fetch and deafness curtailing his ability to hear the mail carrier coming, eating is about the only hobby he has left. Now, I like to see a healthy eater, for I know that when dogs stop caring about living, they stop caring about eating. But the problem is breakfast. Andy likes to eat early.
For most of Andy's life, this wasn't a problem. I worked in an office, got up early and fed the dogs. But now that I work at home, my hours are far more erratic. Sometimes I'll work long into the night and beyond, leaving me with little interest in setting the alarm for 6 a.m. just so I can fill the dog dishes.
So Andy, clever boy that he is, started waking me up.
At first it was no big deal. He'd bump the bed at 6:15 a.m., and I'd get up. If I resisted, he'd pull the Lassie maneuver, trotting back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom, nails clicking loudly on the hardwood floors. By that time, the retrievers would be bouncing around, too, and I'd have no choice but to get up and feed them all. And go back to bed.
Then came the day when I realized Andy was waking me at 6 a.m., then a month later, at 5:30. I wasn't happy about it, but it wasn't a big deal. And besides, it was Andy, my special boy who wouldn't be with me forever. How could I deny him such a small indulgence?
I did make an effort here and there, holding out until he upped his level of insistence before I'd give in and get up, or refusing on the odd day to play his game at all. In this way, I was training him even as he was training me.
Anyone who knows anything about the psychology of learning knows that random rewards make the behavior stronger. That's the theory behind slot machines, after all: You get a little reward now and then, and you keep playing, with even more determination than before. I knew all this, and yet ... well, what can I say? I'm just not that smart in the morning.
But maybe Andy isn't as smart as he thinks. Finally, he pushed me too far. A couple weeks ago, on a morning that first hinted at the cold days to come, he woke me at the amazing hour of 4 a.m. Enough was enough.
I put a baby gate across the door to my bedroom, with the dogs on the other side, innocent retrievers included. And I resolved to ignore -- completely and totally -- Andy's 4 a.m. shenanigans, knowing that any sign of weakness would make matters worse. Again, it's like that slot machine: If you think it has gone cold on you -- no small payouts -- you'll eventually walk away.
We're still at that stage where Andy's still trying to insist on his morning payout, but the amount of racket on the other side of the baby gate is slowly diminishing. He's not an idiot; he'll eventually know it's not worth the effort and give up.
And not a moment too soon, because with the clocks having been set back, Andy at 4 a.m. would now become a 3 a.m. wake-up call. And that would have never worked.
Much as I love the old dog, he would have been out of luck. I wouldn't get up at 3 a.m. to meet my maker.
Over the years I've been encouraged by pet-supply chains that choose the high road and decide not to sell dogs and cats -- and, not incidentally, generate a lot of goodwill at the same time. Yet I'm disappointed that these chains continue to sell other pets, in somewhat callous disregard of the mortality rates before and after purchase of mass-produced birds, reptiles, pocket pets and fish.
That's why I'm pleased to offer a tip of the hat to PETsMART, which has decided to end sales of green iguanas. In announcing the change, the chain pointed out that the critters can reach 4 or 5 feet in length as adults and can develop a nasty attitude as well. Few people are prepared to deal with these facts when they take home a pet that's only a few inches long. Iguanas are so rarely cared for properly that most never see adulthood, and those that do often end up increasing the burden at shelters and rescue groups. PETsMART is to be congratulated for doing the right thing, again. Now, about the rest of those critters ...
PETS ON THE WEB
Like many writers, I belong to a handful of national writing organizations. My favorite of all of them is the Cat Writers Association (www.catwriters.org). Modeled after the venerable Dog Writers Association of America (www.dwaa.org), the CWA has grown beyond the expectations of its founders, developing a large membership and a fantastic annual conference in just over a decade.
What I like about the CWA, though, is how supportive it is to people who are just getting started. Everyone in the organization remembers what that's like, and they believe in helping. Members even maintain an e-mail list where questions are answered, victories celebrated and losses consoled.
If you love cats and are just getting started in writing about them, this is one group you need to know about. Its Web site says it all, with information on joining, and even a list of members so you can see what fine company you'll be in.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: A teacher at my school has a cockatoo. It perches on a stand all day, says a few words and is very sweet. It is large and has white feathers. Do you have any advice on these birds? I really want to get one, but my mom says they are probably too expensive. Please help. -- B.R., via e-mail
A: Cockatoos have a reputation as "love sponges" -- birds who, in the words of avian behaviorist Chris Davis, would choose to be surgically grafted onto their human companions if they could. That's only half the story, though. In fact, cockatoos come in two basic behavioral types: "love sponges" and "hyperactive children."
Umbrella and Moluccan cockatoos are in the first group. Undeniably sweet and cuddly, these large, flashy birds can become a problem if spoiled excessively, demanding attention 28 hours a day. If ignored, they can develop behavior problems such as unstoppable screaming and feather-picking.
The "hyperactive children" are best represented by the Goffins and bare-eyed cockatoos. Not always so keen on snuggling, these clowns never met a toy (or cage door) they couldn't figure out and take apart. Some of these birds need padlocks on their cages to keep them from escaping -- and not combination locks, either. Goffins and bare-eyed cockatoos learn tricks easily and perform them enthusiastically.
No matter the species, there's never a dull moment when you share your life with a cockatoo. Prices range from $400 for some of the smaller species, such as Goffins, to $2,000 for Moluccans. Rare species, such as some of the black cockatoos, can run as high as $20,000.
Because of the prices and the size, I'd recommend instead that you provide your mom with information on some of the smaller parrots, such as parakeets, lovebirds and cockatiels. You might have a better chance convincing her to make one of these species your first bird. These little guys are packed with personality, they are less expensive to acquire and maintain, and they are easier to live with than their cockatoo relatives.
Q: I took an online quiz to find my perfect dog, and the answer that came back was a border collie. Are they an easy breed to take care of? Do they listen to you when you talk to them? Are they a sweet, gentle breed? Are they protective against people they don't know? - B.D., via e-mail
A: Your suitability for life with a border collie depends on whether or not you keep sheep in your back yard. Many breeds have nearly had their original purpose bred out of them, but the border collie still maintains his hard-working personality. He needs a job to do.
The border collie has been riding a wave of popularity lately, helped by the success of the movie "Babe," and by the breed's high profile as an athletic and agile canine Einstein. That popularity is too bad, because the border collie needs a lot more than most people can offer, and a bored border collie can be a horrible pet.
Those who share their lives with border collies must be constantly working on ways to keep this dog's fantastic mind and body busy. BCs need exercise and training, forever. They never want to stop moving or stop learning, which is why so many of them excel in sports such as obedience and agility. Easy to keep? Hardly. This is not a dog who'll be content with a short walk a couple times a week or long days alone in the yard.
They are intense listeners -- intense at everything they do -- but protectiveness, sweetness and gentleness will vary from dog to dog. I've known BCs who were absolute charmers, and others who cared for nothing but the object of their obsession, such as a tennis ball. As for protective ability, remember that the border collie was developed more for moving sheep than protecting them, a job that fell to flock-guarding breeds such as the Great Pyrenees.
For most people, the border collie isn't the best choice. It's too much dog for urban or suburban environments. The people who make it work are those who work their dogs, primarily in dog sports.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also 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)spadafori.com.
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