Here's one of those columns you can clip and give to a neighbor, or maybe you'll find it handed to you. It seems as though everyone's eager to help the neighbor with the barking dog, and if you have such an animal, you really need to do something about it.
Why do dogs bark? Experts say it's to express a variety of emotions: anxiety, boredom, territoriality, aggression, playfulness and hunger. Certain conditions in a dog's environment can trigger these emotions -- and barking fits -- more frequently.
What can be done? The first step is to remove or reduce barking triggers. Figure out the kind of barking your dog indulges in. Is he a fence-runner, trading insults with the dog on the other side of the back fence? Consider reworking your yard to deny him access to that activity. In my house, Andy got in the habit when he was younger of jumping up on a sofa to look out the front window and bark. After the sofa was moved, he couldn't see outside anymore and the barking settled down.
Visual cues are the most obvious to us, but don't forget to address sound cues, too. Many dogs fire up when they hear car doors slam, other dogs bark or the mail carrier's steps on the walk. You can muffle these sounds by leaving your pet inside with a radio playing while you're gone, and he'll be more likely to sleep through minor commotions.
Exercise, both of the body and of the mind, works wonders for all dogs, especially those that bark from boredom or to release excess energy. Bring your dog out of the back yard and into your life; train him and provide regular aerobic exercise, and he'll be much calmer, quieter and happier.
What about the barking that continues? Work with a trainer or behaviorist to help you teach your pet to stop barking on command. And training is the key: Screaming, "Shut up, you mangy mutt!" has no effect except, perhaps, to make you feel better.
A dog trained to stop barking isn't a dog trained not to start barking, however, and what happens when there's no one home to monitor the peace? In the most serious of cases -- often prompted by threats of legal action or dead dogs -- many people turn to the most controversial of fixes: electronic collars or debarking.
Shock collars work with many behavior problems, including barking, but they should be used only by experienced trainers or behaviorists. Understanding which model to choose and how to use it properly is beyond the abilities of the average pet owner -- and using a shock collar improperly is most certainly cruel.
Relatively new are electronic collars that emit a burst of high-pitched sound or a spray of citronella scent when a dog barks. These are both better options for pet-owners than a shock collar. In particular, I have found the citronella collars to be very effective.
Debarking is the surgical altering of the vocal cords, changing them so that the dog will still be able to bark, but at a greatly reduced volume. The "debarked" dog will end up with a bark that sounds like a harsh whisper, although the final outcome, in terms of tone and volume, will vary from dog to dog.
Debarking is very controversial. But there is no indication that a debarked dog misses the ability to bark loudly. Indeed, a debarked dog in many cases may be happier than before the surgery, since he will still be able to bark, but without risking the ire of his owner or the hatred of the neighborhood.
Surgery is a last-ditch option, not a quick-fix substitute for the proper care and training of a pet. When you're faced with the legal or illegal actions of irate neighbors -- remember that it's certainly not unheard of for frustrated neighbors to kill a chronic barker -- debarking should be discussed with your veterinarian.
With some effort on your part to train your pet and change his environment, however, you'll never need such drastic options. And everyone will be happier as a result.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Maine Coon is one of the most popular breeds of pedigreed cats, a large and well-furred beauty with an easygoing disposition. The cat has mystery and history: Some believe the animal developed from the mating of cats and raccoons (not true), while others note with pride that a Maine Coon won the first cat show held in the United States (true).
To find out more about this lovely breed, check out the Cat Fanciers' Association's page of information
www.cfainc.org/breeds/profiles/maine.html). Like all the information on the CFA site, the Maine Coon page is well-organized and well-researched, with information on the history of the breed, special health concerns and tips on finding a reputable breeder.
In a recent column I mentioned some tips on teaching a cat to use a cat door. My friend Christie Keith, director of the Veterinary Information Network's Pet Care Forum (www.vin.com/petcare), dropped me a note with some additional ideas.
"You can replace the stiff rubber or plastic flaps most cat doors come with, with fabric, either permanently or temporarily," she writes. "I favor heavy terry cloth,
canvas or denim. Cats much prefer the softer 'curtain' effect. These heavy fabrics are almost as effective as rubber or plastic at blocking out the elements, and they can be taken off and cleaned or replaced when dirty or worn."
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I agree that dogs (and other pets) should be restrained in any moving vehicle. The point of contention here is your assertion that they should be crated. While I agree that this is the appropriate containment for pets that fly, pets that ride in a car are put in a great deal of danger when crated.
When a car comes to a complete and sudden stop (as in a head-on collision with just about anything solid), the objects in the car keep traveling forward until they crash into something. This is why airbags and seat belts are effective. They stop the occupants as the car stops, with a little give. A dog in a crate will slam into the front of the crate at a high rate of speed. The results of this will be the same as for an uncrated pet. The only benefit of the crate is to protect the people in the car from a fast-moving pet who can strike them from behind and injure them.
Fence-type barriers in vehicles act in the same way that the crate does: They protect the human occupants, but still subject the pet to a hard surface when the car stops suddenly. Not only that, but often the cargo area of an SUV or van is designed as a crumple zone, meaning that that section of the car will fold like an accordion in an accident to dissipate the energy of the moving bodies that are colliding. This is why there are no seats in these areas (if there are seats, then there has been additional structural support installed in this area). This puts pets in cargo areas in danger of being crushed when their vehicle is struck from behind.
Allowing a pet to ride in the front passenger-side seat also puts the pet in danger, especially in cars with dual airbags. Recall the number of small adults and children who have been killed in accidents as minor as fender benders because of the extreme force of passenger-side airbags.
While I give you kudos for at least seat-belting Andy, it would be much safer for him in a rear seat. Seat belts are the only really effective way to keep pets and passengers safe from accident and from each other in a car. However, you should stress to your readers that not all pet seat belts are created equal. There may not have been any crash-test puppies, but there are groups actively testing pet-restraint systems in cars. -- Phil LaFond, via e-mail
A: Great information, and lots to think about. Believe me, I have thought about 35-pound Andy and that passenger-side airbag many times, and shuddered. I guess I'll be moving him and his seat belt into the middle seat of the van, like it or not.
I still believe, however, that any restraint is better than no restraint at all, minimizing the possibility that an out-of-control dog will distract the driver and cause an accident.
It's interesting to note that pet safety in cars is an issue that's sure to grow. One carmaker, Saab, is the first to give it any priority at all, but I doubt it will be the last. The manufacturer's 9-5 station wagon offers a package of optional pet accessories designed for safety and practicality.
Q: I'm giving my cat hairball medication every day, and she's still coughing them up. Any ideas? -– G. R., via e-mail
A: Oil-based hairball remedies can tie up the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which is why you shouldn't be giving them on a regular basis -– twice a week, tops, is plenty. You can minimize hairballs by combing and brushing your cat regularly to remove loose fur, and also by adding a teaspoon or so of canned pumpkin to meals to increase the amount of fiber your cat eats.
A certain amount of hairballs are inevitable, however, so you need to just accept that -– and watch where you put your bare feet.
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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