Summer is the time when a homeowner's thoughts naturally gravitate to gardening. The home centers are full of gardeners every weekend, and even drugstores and supermarkets sell a fair number of plants to people who just can't resist the urge to beautify the yard.
But what if your dog has a different idea of what makes a yard beautiful? What if your yard isn't the verdant oasis you've always dreamed of, but rather a crater-marred war zone created by a dog whose idea of a good time is digging? Short of finding a new home for the dog -- and you know I'd never recommend that -- can you have a nice yard? The answer is probably "yes," if you're willing to work and to compromise.
Like many behaviors people find troubling, digging is natural for dogs, with any number of triggers driving the activity. Among them:
-- Wanderlust. Some dogs, especially unneutered males, have a strong desire to dig their way out of the yard, especially when the breeze carries the enticing scent of a female in heat.
-- Prey drive. Subterranean wildlife is irresistible to some dogs, especially terriers or terrier mixes. These breeds were developed to dig vermin from their lairs, and they still do so with much enthusiasm.
-- Need for shelter. A well-dug den can keep a dog cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Although any breed or mix can show an interest in making a den, the behavior is more common in such breeds as huskies and malamutes.
-- Excess energy and boredom. This combination is either directly responsible or a contributing factor in most canine behavior problems.
The trick to having a nice yard and a happy dog is to do what you can to eliminate the triggers for digging, and then take your pet's needs into account when planning your landscaping.
Neutering can greatly reduce the desire to wander, so if your dog's a roaming Romeo, a trip to the veterinarian should be the first item on your list. If wildlife's a problem, contact your local agricultural extension for safe strategies on how to get the pests to give your yard a skip. And make sure your pet has the shelter he needs to stay comfortable no matter the weather. (Or better yet, make him an inside dog.)
Often the lack of exercise and sheer boredom are the biggest contributors to this behavior problem -- and any other. If you make it impossible for your dog to dig -- say by cooping him up in a concrete-floored kennel run -- he may switch to another unwanted behavior such as nonstop barking or self-mutilation.
Every dog needs an exercise program, with the emphasis on heart-thumping aerobic interludes such as a daily run or a game of fetch. If you keep your pet well-exercised, he'll be less likely to indulge in destructive behaviors.
Finally, design your yard for compromise. Make a less-visible part of the yard a dog-friendly free-dig zone, and limit your pet to that area when you can't be there to supervise. Provide safe chew toys to keep him occupied when alone, and discourage digging in off-limit areas by filling in holes and covering them with chicken wire and large rocks.
For the safety of the dedicated escape artist, you may need to bury chain-link fencing up to 18 inches or more below the surface, or run a hot wire along the base of the fence. (While I generally don't recommend such harsh cures for behavior problems, a shock or two while learning to leave the fence line alone is far preferable to a roaming dog getting lost or hit by a car.)
If you address the underlying issues that cause digging and then allow your dog the opportunity to do some of what comes naturally in an area that's acceptable to you both, you'll find that it's indeed possible to have a yard you can be proud to show off.
PETS ON THE WEB
Common wisdom in the humane community is that people value what they pay for, that a free pet will be more easily discarded at the first sign of difficulty. While it's true that people will often put more effort into keeping a pet they paid a lot to acquire, sometimes even the most expensive pets -- like parrots -- find themselves without homes. The reasons are many, but usually come down to a lack of education about parrot personalities, care requirements and longevity.
What happens to unwanted parrots? If they're lucky, they end up at the nonprofit Gabriel Foundation (www.thegabrielfoundation.org), a model program for avian rescue, placement and education. The foundation's Web site offers information on many avian topics, as well as showing off those birds who are looking for a new home of a more permanent variety.
Several readers checked in after the columns on pilling cats with another suggestion: pill "guns." Wrote one reader: "Pill guns are plastic and consist of a barrel that holds the pill, plus a plunger to pop it into the back of the cat's mouth. I've tried two different kinds, and my preference is for the BullsEye brand pill gun. I have to pill cats eight times per day, and thanks to my pill guns it is quick and easy!" Pill guns are widely available for around $5 from veterinarians as well as pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites. Check the ads in the back of cat magazines, too. For information on the BullsEye pill gun, go to www.butlersalesassociates.com/BullsEyePillGun/Professional%20Specialties.htm.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have one cat who is very talkative, which can be quite bothersome. I know you recommend citronella collars for barking dogs, and I wonder: Would they be safe for cats as well? -- K.Q., via e-mail
A: The citronella collars react to the sharp sound of a bark, but ignore a whine or whimper, which leads me to believe they wouldn't work on a meow.
Some measure of vocalization is actually trained into cats by humans. If you hop up and accommodate your pet's every demand to be fed, then you've taught her that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, even in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. If you think your cat's chatty behavior is something you've taught her -- as opposed to something she was born with -- then you can try some retraining.
Start by resolving not to give in to her demands. If you ignore her yowling for a while and then give in, you've taught her that all she needs to do to get her way is to make more noise, not less. Correct her with a shot of water from a squirt bottle and then go about your business. She'll get the point soon enough that her demanding gets her nowhere.
It may be, though, that your cat is naturally talkative. You can minimize some of her demanding behavior through retraining her, but you'll also have to do some retraining of yourself to learn to appreciate (or at least tolerate) her noise. Compromise is part of every relationship!
Q: You recently received a letter from someone wanting to know about inexpensive toys for dogs. Thrift stores are a great source for stuffed animals. Of course, you should remove eyes or any other small bits that the dogs may swallow. Would you please share the information? -- Anna Drummond, Pet Adoption League, Grass Valley, Calif., www.pal.nccn.net
A: Stuffed animals from a thrift store can indeed be a bargain toy for some kinds of dogs, but not others. The previous letter writer has a golden retriever who was destroying toys marketed for vigorous chewers; for this dog and others like him, stuffed toys are not recommended.
It comes down to knowing your dog. Some pets like to carry around toys; others like to destroy them. Some, quite sensibly, chew on the chew toys and carry around the stuffed ones. In my home, I've got a milk crate full of mostly stuffed toys, since my retrievers like to have something to carry around but are content to leave toys in one piece. I put all the toys through the washer and dryer a couple times a month, just to keep them from getting too gross.
While my current dogs are not destructive, I have had dogs in the past who seemed to pride themselves on their ability to dissect plush or vinyl toys within minutes. For these pets, I stuck with toys such as the Kong and other hard-rubber chewies.
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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