The season's first winter storm slammed through a couple of days after Thanksgiving, leaving me with a pair of dogs who didn't understand why I couldn't just throw something on and take them to the dog park.
While my oldest dog, the ancient Andy, now closing in on 16, is content with regular meals and a warm, soft bed these days, the two retrievers see no reason why gale-force winds and driving rain should get in the way of a good time. After all, these are the dogs who last winter, when we lived in a North Florida beach house, went swimming on mornings so cold that icicles formed on their fur as they waited on the deck for me to rinse off the saltwater.
But we're back home now, in a setting that is too urban for dogs to exercise themselves. Much to their daily disappointment, I'm sure, we no longer have the Gulf of Mexico for a front yard. If they're going to exercise, I have to be involved. In passable weather, we walk, bike-ride and visit the dog park. In bad weather, we stay home. I'm a weather wimp, you see.
How fortunate for my furry housemates that I learned long ago that mental exercise can be satisfying to bored, bounce-off-the-wall pups on days when an outing isn't possible. Most breeds were developed to work, and few dogs today are asked to. Giving them a job to do is good for them, and they like it.
Years ago, I taught the big retriever, Benjamin, to balance a dog biscuit on his nose, then flip it into the air and catch it on command. Now it's a heck of a parlor trick, performed with plenty of panache. He also knows to bark on request, shake hands and -- I love this one -- find every one of his plush toys and put them in the washing machine.
Every trick, whether useful or just plain fun, was born on a gloomy winter afternoon. Andy used to delight in jumping tricks -- through hoops or over other dogs -- until age got the best of him. We then switched to search games, where I'd hide a toy and ask him to find it. He would play for hours if you let him, with such skill that I wondered if he shouldn't have been lent to the police for bomb or drug detection. Nowadays, we play with the toy barely hidden, only once or twice before he tires. But he still lights up with pride at his accomplishment when he finds the toy.
This winter we're working on complicated retrieves where the two retrievers are put on "stay" and then only one dog is sent out and must find the right object by name -- Kong, frog, football and so on. Heather, the smart one, is better at recognizing toys by name, but she has no patience when it's her turn to play, wriggling and whining when Ben is sent for the toy.
Such games are to dogs what the daily crossword puzzle or the latest computer game is to us. Dogs have to think, they have to learn, and when they get it right, their sense of accomplishment and joy is palpable and contagious. And as pleasurable as these games are, with plenty of praise for a job done right, they also reinforce a dog's place in the pack structure we humans call "family."
Start with a simple game and build on it. If your dog likes to retrieve, begin with simple in-sight fetching and then slowly make things harder. Add a "stay." Then "hide" the toy in an easy-to-find spot, making the game a little trickier as your pet learns you want him to "find," instead of merely "fetch."
Just don't let them sit around doing nothing. You'll all enjoy a rainy day better if you find something useful to do.
PETS ON THE WEB
Every year at this time it's my pleasure to steer people to the Doggie Carols Web site (www.ddc.com/waggers/carols_tennis_balls.html). New carols haven't been added in a couple of years, but the old favorites are still highly amusing, a canine twist on Christmas classics.
The site offers new lyrics for traditional music, such as "Tennis Balls" instead of "Silver Bells." In that selection, you'll find these lyrics: "Tennis balls/Tennis balls/Perfection, round and inviting/Roll and play/All the day/Please, Santa, toss some my way."
Silly? You bet. But laughter is a great way to relieve the stress of the season.
Birds need exercise, too! From the smallest budgie to the largest macaw, parrots are highly intelligent, active birds who need to stay mentally and physically active to stay healthy. Anything a parrot can dig into, from a toy to a challenging food that requires effort to eat, is good. One toy in particular is good for burning the calories consumed by a sedentary bird: the coiled-rope perch. This springy invention requires effort to stay on, and some birds become so enamored of it that they'll spend hours bouncing up and down.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have had both cats and dogs over the past 20 years, and I've always had them spayed and neutered. But now there is an adolescent male -- my son -- in the house, and he doesn't want our dog to be neutered.
Other than helping with the problem of pet overpopulation and minimizing the risk of our dog escaping the yard to elope with some wandering female in heat, what other reasons are there for neutering? I feel like I ought to have more answers for my son than I hear myself giving, even though I do plan to have the dog neutered soon. -- L.H., via e-mail
A: Your son's not alone in his horror at the prospect of having the dog neutered. Many men who are well beyond their adolescence -- at least in terms of years -- react the same way. I've never understood the problem, and chances are that since I'm not a man I never will. I have never known a woman to become so intensely concerned with the reproductive organs of the family dog, so maybe it is solely a guy thing.
The reasons you've already offered are good ones in favor of the surgery, but there are certainly more. Neutering (in both males and females) reduces the risks of some cancers. In males, neutering offers many behavioral benefits, including reducing problems with marking territory and with some aggressive behavior. Even the mildest-mannered of unneutered dogs sometimes have problems with fighting, because some intact males will go out of their way to pick fights with other intact males. Neutering will also reduce problems with sex-related behaviors such as "humping."
Dogs don't miss what they don't have. Your dog will not spend his life lamenting his lost "manhood." On the contrary, he'll live a healthier life and likely a happier one, too, since his family will appreciate the more easygoing nature of a neutered pet.
Q: We have three cats, and one of them has stopped using the litter box (maybe more than one). How can we tell which cat is the problem? -- L.M., via e-mail
A. In a multicat household, it can be very difficult to track down the culprit when someone stops using the litter box.
You can try to isolate the cat with problems by mixing food coloring -- blue or green -- with canned food and offering it to one cat at a time. You'll be able to tell which feces came from the "marked" cat because the food coloring will pass right through.
Urine is a little harder to figure out, but your veterinarian should be able to help, or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who can. What you'll end up with is fluorescent dye and a black light. The dye will show up in the urine, and the black light will reveal it.
Once you know who's causing the problem, schedule a thorough veterinary checkup for the problem cat, including diagnostic tests as recommended. Problems such as urinary-tract infections and diabetes can prompt cats to give up on litter boxes.
If there's not a health problem, you may have a territorial problem. Some cats don't like to share boxes. A good rule of thumb: one box for each cat, plus one more. And put them in different parts of the house, not next to one another in a single area. Make sure they're arranged so a cat doesn't feel he'll be ambushed while using the box -- good visibility and clear escape routes are important to some cats. And remember, scoop constantly. No one likes a dirty bathroom.
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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