The plumber was here the other afternoon, fixing one of those occasional disasters that hit the homes (and pocketbooks) of us all at the worst possible times.
He wasn't a quiet fellow, between the muttering and the clanging, and the retrievers found him an unending source of fascination -- and vice versa, fortunately. Benjamin and Heather love everyone, and in the event of a break-in, they would be the type to provide the thief with tail-wagging moral support (which is why I have a security system).
Andy, my Sheltie, has always been my little guard dog, alerting me to every visitor, and letting each one know that he or she was being closely watched. Andy tolerates no nonsense where his people and his home are concerned. Or anyway, that used to be the case.
But Andy's reaction to the plumber brought home to me just how old my dear gray pup has become. The dog slept through the entire visit. Didn't hear the man arrive, didn't hear his noisy working and didn't hear him leave.
In some ways, Andy's near-deafness isn't such a bad thing. The dog has always been nervous during thunderstorms and fireworks displays, and now they don't bother him at all. And since the retrievers aren't prone to barking, the house is very quiet with Andy now content to sleep away most of his days.
We've made adjustments. I call him to dinner by clanging two stainless steel bowls together with considerable force, and I wake him by touching him gently, with long, light strokes down his furry flank.
He has his moments, though, when with obvious pride he still manages in his own fashion to keep the house safe for us all. In his mind, he's just as keen a protector as he ever was.
Our mail carrier retired a few months ago, a wonderful, caring man much loved by the neighborhood and much despised by Andy. Working under the belief that the carrier was just too nice to be barked at, I kept Andy out of the front room as much as I could every day until the man had moved on to the next house. Andy was insulted and annoyed at such treatment, but forgave me quickly with the aid of a good scratch and a cookie or two.
The new carrier is also a kind person, funny and friendly and as fond of dogs as it's possible for someone who has to watch out for them to be. Andy seems to have retired his animosity on the last day the old carrier walked the route, and he doesn't pay much attention to the new one. Most of the reason is that the mail now comes in the afternoon, which is Andy's naptime. And Andy is one solid sleeper.
But the other day, the man altered the route, coming up the walk in mid-morning, which is Andy's time to gaze out the front screen. The dog came alive at the sight of him, lurching to his feet and trumpeting what he thought was a threatening bark. The sound was more of a throat clearing, followed by a cough. From the other side of the screen, the man chuckled, put the mail in the slot and left.
Andy's bravado has nothing to do with the carrier's departure, I know, but Andy saw things differently: In his mind, he drove the intruder away. He watched with his lip raised in a sneer as the man turned the corner, then Andy strutted over to me.
I gave the old boy a good pat for his bravery, enjoying the glimpse of the clever brat he once was. Exhausted by the excitement, Andy was asleep in five minutes, twitching with dreams that no doubt replayed the encounter in an endless loop, making him younger and more fearsome with each review.
As he dreamed, I sat down on the floor and continued to caress him. A guard dog's work may never be done, I knew, but an old dog needs his naps.
PETS ON THE WEB
One of the most popular activities on the Internet is shopping, especially of the specialized variety. Those people who love retrievers will want to take a tour of the Lab Locker and Golden Goods Web site (www.lablocker.com), which offers merchandise not only for these highly popular breeds, but also for some of the lesser-known retrievers. Almost anything you can imagine with a retriever theme you'll find here, including shirts, caps, cups, throws, prints, books and furniture.
Readers are still asking for help in finding two products mentioned in earlier columns: the citronella anti-bark collar, and fencing that keeps cats safely inside a yard.
The collars are widely available at pet-supply stores, especially the large chains. You can also order them from Doctors Foster and Smith (800-381-7179, or online at www.drsfostersmith.com).
The feral-cat advocacy group Alley Cat Allies has cat-fence instructions on its Web site (www.alleycat.org/ic_fs_fence.html). You can also buy ready-made cat fencing from Affordable Cat Fence (888-840-CATS, or online at www.catfence.com).
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Can you help me find tapes or CDs to teach my Senegal parrot to talk? I have tried everything. -- D.T., via e-mail
A: Senegals are lovely small parrots, very bright, affectionate and playful, but they are not known for their talking abilities. The only sound my Senegal, Patrick, ever mastered was the beeping of the microwave, which signaled to him that food was on the way.
The best talkers among those species commonly kept as pets are the African gray, and the yellow-naped or double-yellow-headed Amazons. Don't count out small parrots, though: Some budgies are exceptional talkers, with documented vocabularies of up to 300 words. (They also have very sweet little voices.)
You can try to teach your bird to talk by selecting a few words or phrases and repeating them clearly over and over. It will help if you do so in situations that make your bird happy, such as mealtime or playtime. Starting with a young bird is usually more productive, as is working with a single bird who'll be more likely to bond with you than with a cage-mate.
You can find teaching tapes and CDs by looking in the back of magazines such as Bird Talk, or by visiting a bird show. Hornbeck's (www.hornbecks.com, or 888-224-3247) also has a variety of training aids. I'm guessing, though, that if your Senegal hasn't spoken up by now, he isn't going to.
One thing to consider when teaching a parrot to talk: Choose words or phrases that you won't mind hearing for the rest of the bird's very long life. Heaven knows how many birds are still muttering catch phrases from commercials that caught the public's fancy years or even decades ago. And rescuers report that it can be very difficult to find a new home for a bird whose vocabulary is mostly profanity.
Q: My friend has a male calico that he may be interested in selling. How would he do this? Also, does "calico" refer only to color, or is it a breed? -- D.B., via e-mail
A: Your friend seems to believe that because male calicos are rare that he is sitting on a gold mine. Not so.
A male calico has no monetary value beyond that of any other cat. The emotional value of the animal, of course, depends on the bond shared with the humans in his life.
Studies show that about one in every 3,000 calicoes or tortoiseshell cats is male, with a hitch. These boys are what's called "Klinefelter" males, which means they have two X chromosomes (which allow them to be calicoes) and one Y (which makes them male). They are usually sterile.
As for your other question: "Calico" refers to a cat's markings, not the breed. Calies have distinctive patches of orange and black on a white background, and this pattern in found in many breeds and mixes. "Dilute" calicos are very similar, except that the colors involved are gray and a muted shade of orange on a white background.
Tortoiseshells are genetically comparable in that the overwhelming majority of them are females, but on these cats the orange, black and white hairs are swirled together.
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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