A friend was telling me about a problem he'd had at his local fast-food outlet. An older, larger child in the play area was pushing around a smaller boy while the bully's parents looked on, oblivious.
The friend waited for the parents to do something about the problem child, and when that didn't happen, he went over to speak with them about removing their son. "They're just playing," the other dad said, and both men exchanged a few less-than-polite words before the bully's parents picked up their son and left.
Being the non-confrontational type, my first thought was to be amazed that no one ended up shot. My second was how much the story reminded me of my local dog park.
Since this is a pet column, it's not my place to comment about poorly behaved children or clueless parents. But ill-mannered dogs and their oblivious owners? That's another thing entirely.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a strong supporter of dog parks. A lot of the problems we have with dogs are caused by a lack of exercise, poor socialization or both. And I'm happy to see that an increasing number of communities are giving dog lovers fenced areas to unleash their pets.
Dog parks are run by peer pressure, and it's generally a good system. Most dog lovers know that having such areas is a privilege, hard-won and still considered experimental by many public officials. We come down hard on people who don't respect the rules, especially when it comes to picking up after their pets.
But what about the problems that are more about common sense and common civility? These things pop up now and then, thanks to people who may lack both.
The biggest lapse in common sense: leaving a choke collar on your dog after you take off the leash. Putting aside the frequent overuse and misuse of this piece of training equipment, every dog lover should realize that choke collars are not intended to be left on a dog without the leash attached. The moving ring can be easily caught -- on the tooth of another dog in play, for example -- and once that happens, the natural tendency of an animal to pull away from danger puts into play the natural tendency of the collar to choke when tightened. This situation is dangerous, both for the dog and for anyone who tries to free him, who may be bitten by the panicking pet.
Problems of the civility variety come from people who allow their dogs to annoy other pets or people. Sometimes a dog will just get it in his head that he's going to pick out one person or pet to pester. If your dog is ruining the enjoyment of the park for another user, get out your leash and call it a day, or at least engage your pet in a game of fetch on the other side of the enclosure.
Then there are the people who seem to have neither common sense nor common civility: the ones bringing dogs that get into fights. Dogs that are flat-out aggressive have no business being off-leash anywhere, including a dog park, but I'm a little more tolerant of those animals that now and then get wound up in play to the point of an altercation. The solution for these dogs is easy: Keep them muzzled. A wire box muzzle allows a dog to breathe easily and pant, but keeps the teeth out of play while the pet is getting the exercise he needs.
The problems in dog parks aren't that common, but they would be almost unheard of if people just used their heads. Being more careful and considerate is the best way I know to ensure that there'll be dog parks for our pets to enjoy for a long time to come.
PETS ON THE WEB
Want to keep up on the latest dog-related news from around the world? Then make it a point to visit The Scoop: Dogs in the News (http://dogsinthenews.com) on a regular basis. The Web site looks for dog stories of all kinds -- funny, quirky, irritating or just plain interesting -- and lists the links in reverse chronological order.
The take on the news is definitely pro-dog, as the editorial comments attached to many pieces make very clear. Each story offers a link to a discussion board, where visitors can add their opinions to the mix.
Looking for a non-chemical weapon in the fight against fleas? Chances are, two of the best are already in your home: a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner.
Washing pet bedding on at least a weekly basis will help to kill fleas of all life stages -- eggs, larvae and adults. Bedding that cannot be washed is a fertile breeding ground for generation after generation of fleas, so it's best to use beds that can handle wash-and-dry cycles with ease.
Regular vacuuming of areas where pets frequent also breaks the flea breeding cycle. Empty the canister immediately after use, to prevent your vacuum cleaner from becoming a flea nursery. If your cleaner uses bags, put in some flea powder or a piece of flea collar to kill the pests.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have always had big dogs. But since my husband and I are in our 70s now, we decided that when our last shepherd died that having a small dog would be a better idea. A few months ago we got an adorable Maltese pup.
Cindy is a sweetie, and we love her. But we don't seem to be having much luck getting her house-trained. She just doesn't seem to get the concept, even though we've put her nose in the mess and spanked her. Help! -- C.M., via e-mail
A: Toy dogs are notoriously hard to house-train, but it can usually be accomplished with consistency, praise and lots of patience. Please notice that "punishment" is not on that list, so stop with the swat right now, and vow to never put your pup's nose in another mess.
The first step in house-training a toy breed, according to small-dog expert Darlene Arden, author of "The Irrepressible Toy Dog" (Hungry Minds Inc., $17.95), is to make sure your dog will feel safe in the outside spot you've chosen for her to use.
The act of elimination is one when a dog's guard is down, and when you weigh 10 pounds or less, it's important to feel that you're not going to be attacked. "They feel vulnerable," says Arden. "You need to find that one very safe spot for them." And keep the grass short so the dog doesn't feel as if he's hacking through a jungle, she adds.
Once your dog has that safe spot outside, you put your house-training plan in place.
"Feed on a schedule," says Arden, "and be aware of when the puppy has to go. You must take your dog out after he eats, after play, after any kind of stimulation.
"Take a very special treat and your happiest voice to the special spot. The moment the puppy's feet hit the ground, get excited." When the deed is done, says Arden, praise your pet and deliver the treat.
Limiting a dog's wandering in the house is also important. "I'm a firm believer in crate-training -- as a tool, not a punishment," says Arden. "A crate keeps a dog out of trouble when you can't watch him." Some trainers also recommend leashing your dog to you in the house while training, so the pet can't slip off unnoticed.
Mistakes are part of the learning process and should never be punished. "If you see the dog starting to go in the house, pick him up and run him to that special spot," says Arden, and praise when the dog finishes up outside.
If you want to solve this problem, you'll have to work at it consistently for a few weeks or more. It's worth it in the end, because then you'll have the companion you were hoping for when you brought home your puppy -- a bright, happy dog of a manageable size who knows how to do her business outside.
Q: As the temperature is heating up, so are truck beds. Many dog owners seem to be blissfully unaware of that, and they make their dogs ride in the back. Please help educate these idiots. -- N.B., via e-mail
A: Consider it done. Transporting a dog in the back of an open pickup is about the worst thing you can do in terms of safety and comfort. Aside from the problem of hot feet, dogs in pickups can be thrown from the vehicle, or sometimes will jump out if something catches their attention. Leashing your dog -- as required by law in some states -- provides little in the way of safety.
If you must transport your dog in a pickup, do so in a crate secured firmly to the bed of the truck. Using a crate will keep your dog's feet off the hot metal, and provide protection against him jumping out or being thrown out if you must stop sharply.
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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