My dogs are not, by preference, couch potatoes. They want to leave the house every time I do. And if they could, they'd always choose not the mundane errand-running trips of my ordinary existence, but outings more geared to the athletically minded -- day hikes and camping trips, dog parks and river runs.
Thanks to their constant lobbying, I do a lot of what my dogs like to do. Because I find their joy infectious, I leave them behind only when I must, and I am constantly trying out gear designed to make getting out with dogs easier and more fun. As a result, I've run across a couple of companies that make dog-friendly products of such high quality that I look for their brands when I'm shopping for something new.
The first such company is Canine Hardware, maker of a toy you can't go to a dog park without seeing, and a new one that's popping up wherever dogs play fetch.
The first, a tennis-ball tosser known as the Chuckit, is nothing short of revolutionary, especially for people with wimpy throwing arms like mine. The Chuckit is a long wand of flexible plastic, with a handle on one end and a cup for holding a standard tennis ball on the other. You press the cup against the tennis ball -- no touching the slimy, spit-covered thing -- and then raise the device over your head, flinging it in a forward motion. The Chuckit then catapults the tennis ball an amazing distance. Even I can fling the ball nearly half the length of a football field.
I used to use an old tennis racket to whack the ball far enough for my big dogs, but using that strategy, I'd still have to touch the slimy ball -- ugh! The Chuckit is simply the best tool I've found for exercising a dog who loves to retrieve. The product retails for less than $12, including a two-tone tennis ball.
The company's newest sports toy is the Flying Squirrel (about $15), a well-designed flying disc. The colorful toy, make of durable soft material, is shaped with four points to make it easy to grab and throw. When it lands, it sits up a little on its "legs" to make it easier for the dog to pick up. It's another great dog-friendly product!
I also love the Outward Hound travel gear, and what a clever name! Over the years I've purchased their travel bowls, made of soft, collapsible material, as well as their reflective safety vests for walking dogs at night. My favorite purchase is their doggy backpack, which my big retriever Benjamin wears when we do talks, book-signings or other public events. The pack fits well and is easy to put on and take off.
With the addition of my toy-breed puppy Chase, I've been delighted to find that Outward Hound makes carriers for small dogs. I bought the one that wears like a shoulder bag with an adjustable strap; the pup rides in it without wriggling, and it's a comfortable fit for me.
Outward Hound also makes gear bags, fanny packs, canine life preservers and small carriers that fit on leashes to hold cleanup bags and keys. The products come in a selection of bright colors and are made from sturdy, wipe-clean material. Prices range from less than $8 for collapsible bowls to around $40 for the large backpack.
Can you get out and about without gear? Sure, you can. But I have found over the years that purchasing a few high-quality, long-lasting items makes taking the dogs out more pleasant for us all.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Chuckit can be found in most pet-supply stores, as well as selected items from the Outward Hound line. For the complete lineup of products from these manufacturers, visit their Web sites. For the Chuckit ball tosser and Flying Squirrel soft flying disc, visit Canine Hardware (www.caninehardware.com). Outward Hound's collection of travel bags, leash attachments, portable dishes, canine backpacks, vests and life preservers can be found at the Kyjen Company's Web site (www.kyjen.com)
While it takes expert analysis to tell the boys from the girls in many species of pet birds, there's no such difficulty when you're looking at an eclectus parrot. The males are a vivid kelly green, while the females are bright scarlet red, except for a "sweater vest" of royal blue. Male or female, the eclectus is one gorgeous bird.
If you want one of these beauties for your own, though, be aware that they can be difficult to keep. For one thing, they require a higher percentage of fresh fruits and vegetables than other parrots do to keep them healthy, and the eclectus fares particularly poorly on a diet of seeds. (And this isn't recommended for any parrot, from budgie to macaw.) Eclectus parrots are also believed to be very sensitive to changes in their environment. They're probably not suitable for a beginner, but can be a wonderful addition to the household of someone with serious bird-savvy.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have two happy and healthy adult cats, both spayed females, who have lived with me for about six years. I am considering adopting a dog and would like to rescue one from a shelter. I've noticed that certain shelters indicate whether each dog gets along with cats. How accurate do you think this information is? And is age a factor -- that is, would a puppy be more likely to get along with them? What about gender? I want to do all I can to prevent traumatizing the cats. -- N.D., via e-mail
A: Shelters and rescue groups can find out this information by getting it from the dog's previous owners, or by exposing the dog to a cat and evaluating the response.
The latter isn't as awful as it sounds. They'd never test a dog who's clearly aggressive (such animals never make it to the adoption kennels), and they don't haul out some terrified guest kitty to be the guinea pig, so to speak. The tester cat is usually a permanent resident of the shelter, often a staff favorite who has proven to be calm and disdainfully confident around dogs. Dogs who are aggressive toward the cat (but not people) are so noted, as are those who are too friendly (and will need training to leave a cat alone), are friendly but not intrusive (ideal), or couldn't care less about the cat (also fine). Ask the folks at the shelter how they determine cat-tolerance in the case of any dog you're interested in.
As for breeding, gender or age, it doesn't make much difference, as each dog is an individual. For example, Shelties generally are thought to get along well with cats, but my sweet Sheltie Andy, who died a few months ago at the age of 15, dedicated his life to attempting to tree every cat he saw. (After he died, I found out that his lifelong nemesis, the neighbor's marmalade tabby, died just a few days before Andy did. I think Andy outlived George out of sheer stubbornness.)
In general, I'd look for a quiet, gentle and well-mannered adult dog of 3 to 5 years of age or older who falls into the friendly but not intrusive category, preferably one who has lived with cats before. You'll find lots of such dogs in the shelters or rescue groups, if you're patient about looking.
When you find your dog, don't force the pets together. Let the cats decided how much interaction they want, and always offer them an escape route to a dog-free area. It may take a month or more for the situation to settle down.
Q: We're thinking of letting our two cats out into the back yard, but I'm concerned about the dangers they'd face. What do you think about those fence toppers they use at cat sanctuaries? They're made of mesh or plastic, and act as an overhang that prevents the cat from jumping over the fence. I've seen kits online, and I think this may be a good way to let the cats explore the outdoors a bit but still keep them confined in a safe area. Any suggestions? -- C.F., via e-mail
A: Cat fences are wonderful! They allow a cat some outdoor time without letting them roam beyond the yard. Be aware, though, that cat fences will not slow down a predator such as a coyote. So if you live in a rural or suburban region, you shouldn't even let your cats out into a cat-fenced yard. You can buy ready-made kits from Cat Fence-In (www.catfencein.com), or find instructions for a do-it-yourself setup from the Web site of Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org/ic_fs_fence.html).
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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