Last year at this time I was nursing my aging Sheltie, Andy, through what would be his final days, carrying his arthritic body up and down steps to relieve himself and settling him down every night to sleep on a soft, heated bed. I was always looking for products and services to make him more comfortable, becoming quite an expert at canine geriatrics along the way.
Then Andy died. In the months that followed, a puppy toy spaniel, Chase, then a rescued adult Sheltie named Drew joined retrievers Benjamin and Heather in my family -- and suddenly geriatrics wasn't my concern at all. These days, instead of working to keep a dying, old dog comfortable, I'm spending my time trying to keep four healthy, young dogs busy enough to keep them from driving me crazy.
It's not an easy task with the short, dreary days of winter.
In a nod to the much-missed Andy and his younger days as a bratty, quick-minded dog with too much energy, I'm doing one of his favorite winter diversions with my current pets: teaching them new tricks.
Trick-training isn't like regular obedience training -- it's strictly optional and is just plain fun.
Maybe you can't teach your dog to bark on command, but maybe he'll become the world's best at shaking hands, or at some trick that you and he make up together. The point is to have fun, spend time together and strengthen the bond between you while shaking off those wintertime blahs.
As you work with your pet, get a feeling for the tricks he enjoys the most. Some dogs love retrieving games, while others don't like picking up objects in their mouths. And don't hesitate to build your successes into more elaborate tricks.
My favorite trick, of all those I've ever taught, is one that developed naturally, as I built on each behavior to link them into a pretty impressive show. The dog who "owns" this nifty trick is the one I'd have picked as the least likely to show much aptitude for complicated learning as Ben's not the brightest of dogs. But there's no doubt he shines with the attention and praise he gets for showing off.
In my house we have countless stuffed dog toys, since the retrievers love to carry things in their mouths. Between being gently gnawed on or being left out in the elements, these toys get pretty grubby and are subjected to a ride in the washer and dryer on a fairly regular basis.
True to his heritage, Ben loves to retrieve, and over time I discovered that he would find toys throughout the house and yard and bring them to me, one by one. From there, it wasn't difficult to teach him to put his paws up on the washer and drop the toys into the machine. He does seem to be troubled at the temporary disappearance of all his toys, but he has such a short attention span that he soon forgets to worry and is delighted when they appear clean and fluffy from the dryer later in the day. New toys!
Most tricks are not so practical, but they all are fun for dog and owner alike. Let your imagination and your dog's enthusiasm guide you, and you'll both make the winter days go by more swiftly. Even old dogs can learn new tricks -- Andy was learning well into his teens!
PETS ON THE WEB
Lively and entertaining, finches are a great fit with many different kinds of pet-loving households. Finchworld (www.finchworld.com) is a great place to start learning more about these fun little pets. The site offers information on a few dozen species (including canaries, which are technically finches). If you don't know much about finches, you'll be surprised and delighted with the variety of species available beyond the commonly sold zebra finch. Click on any listed species to find a picture and related articles. Navigation across the top of the home page will take you to more detailed information on care and health topics, with many articles geared for beginners.
Are your rabbit's teeth lining up properly? If the answer is no, your pet could be in real trouble. A rabbit's incisors grow throughout the animal's life, and if they get out of alignment, the animal won't be able to eat properly and can starve to death. Veterinary attention is necessary to fix this common problem, called malocclusion, and will involve filing the overgrown teeth so the jaw can work normally again. For some pets this procedure will need to be done on a regular basis, as often as every few weeks. Weight loss is a common symptom of this problem and indicates a pet who needs to see a veterinarian right away.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have three cats, all between 6 and 7 years old. We keep several clean litter boxes in the garage, but our youngest cat prefers to pee on our rugs and hardwood floors. I've sprayed the areas with numerous products, but she always goes back. What can I do to make her understand that she needs to go to the garage when she has to go? -- C.P., via e-mail
A: While it's convenient for you to have boxes in the garage, it seems not to be working out for your cat. It may be that the other cats consider the garage to be their territory and they make her feel unwelcome there, or it may be for a reason that we mere humans will never understand. It doesn't really matter: You'll have to move at least one of those litter boxes.
Do make sure your cat is healthy as part of your efforts, or any changes you make are unlikely to be effective. Health problems from urinary tract infections to diabetes make it very difficult for a cat to have perfect house manners, and these must all be ruled out or treated by your veterinarian if you're to get your cat back on track.
Once your veterinarian has given your cat a clean bill of health, move one or more litter boxes inside, ideally near the area she is choosing to relieve herself. You might need to retrain her by keeping her in a small area -– such as a spare bathroom -- for a couple of weeks, with her food, water, toys and a clean litter box.
The bottom line on litter boxes: It doesn't matter if you like where the litter box is, or what's in it, or how often you clean it. The cat's the one who must be satisfied, or you ultimately won't be.
Q: It has happened again! You've warned before about cats getting killed in dryers, and I've been careful as a result to make sure my cat isn't in our dryer before turning it on. But my neighbor just lost her cat this way, and she's feeling grief and also a hefty load of guilt. She loved her cat so much and can't believe she was responsible for his death. Would you please warn others again? -- D.W., via e-mail
A: If you find your cat in the clothes dryer, I suggest scaring the beejeebers out of the animal to convince your pet once and for all to stay clear of this dangerous appliance. To do this, close the dryer's door for a few seconds (with the machine off, of course) and pound on the metal with your palms, making as much noise as you can. Then open the door and let your cat make a run for it.
I normally would not recommend any training method that would scare an animal, but the risk of death here is too great to ignore. A couple of scary moments in the dryer is vastly preferable to such a horrible death, in my book.
The dryer is a natural draw to heat-seeking cats, but so too is the engine of a car that's just been turned off. The cat who falls asleep next to a warm engine may be gravely injured or killed when the car is started again. That's why I also caution everyone to smack the car hood on cold mornings, to startle any sleeping cats into taking off.
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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