There's no such thing as a dog who's "partially house-trained." Your dog either gets the concept of not using the house for a bathroom, or he doesn't. Admitting you've got a dog who doesn't get it is the first step to setting up a training program that will finally deal with the problem.
Excuses and half-measures will not house-train your dog. If you have a growing puppy or an adult dog who isn't house-trained after a reasonable amount of time and effort, it's important to have a veterinarian ensure the animal has no medical issues. If the health check comes up clean, it's time to review how you're handing your dog -- with an eye to avoiding traps that sabotage your efforts to help your pet learn to "hold it" until he's outside.
Chief among these traps is using a negative approach to housetraining. Successful housetraining requires setting up a potty schedule, limiting your dog's roaming options to areas you can supervise, showing your pet the area you want him to use and praising him for going there. Generations may have followed the old "shove his nose in it and swat" method, but that doesn't work as well as a positive approach. You simply must go out with your dog and praise him for getting it right. You're not being fair otherwise.
Even with a positive approach, people make mistakes. Here are a few things to remember:
-- Understand your dog's physical limitations. Puppies have little storage capability and need to be taken out frequently. Do not expect growing dogs to be able to hold it as long as a healthy adult dog can. If you must leave your puppy for the day, limit his wandering to a small area and put down newspapers to make cleanup easier. Don't punish him for any messes he makes while you're gone -- they're not his fault. Small dogs, too, have capacity issues, and cannot be expected to "hold it" all day.
-- If you're dealing with a puppy, you need to remember how puppy works. Young dogs need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or drink, and after playing. Make sure to take your puppy out then. Do not offer food and water on demand to any dog who isn't house-trained. Instead, offer food and water at regular intervals to help predict when your pet will need a trip outside.
-- Clean up mistakes thoroughly. What you can't see, a dog can still smell, and smells invite repeat business. Keep commercial products on hand that use enzyme action to break down the smell. White vinegar also does a great job of neutralizing the odor of urine. Don't use an ammonia-based product though. To a pet, ammonia's smell resembles one of the components in urine.
-- Limit your dog's wanderings. You wouldn't let a toddler explore your entire house without supervision; don't let your dog do so either. Close doors and use baby gates to keep your dog where your can keep an eye on him. That way, if you see him start to make a mistake, you can whisk him outside and praise him for finishing the job where you want him to.
-- Be patient and consistent. While some dogs seem to housetrain themselves, others are slower to learn. Don't be reluctant to seek out the help of a veterinary behaviorist, who can spot inconsistencies you may not even see in your handling of your dog, and help you develop a program for success.
Yes, these veterinary specialist cost money, but they're cheaper than a steady supply of carpet cleaner -- or a new carpet!
PETS ON THE WEB
As the weather warms up, people with turtles and tortoises become reacquainted with pets who are now ending their winter hibernation. You don't have a turtle or tortoise? Then maybe you should wake up to their pet potential with the help of some very thorough Web sites.
Felice Rood has been a fan of turtles and tortoises for years, sharing her expertise as head of the Sacramento Turtle and Tortoise Club. I've long been a fan of her quirky newsletter, which is among the many useful and delightful things that can be found on her Felice's World of Turtles Web site (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/felicerood/). Other good sites include those of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club (www.tortoise.org) and the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (http://nytts.org/).
The ability to lose a tail can be a lifesaver for iguanas. If caught by a predator, an iguana can escape by dropping the tail, leaving it still wriggling in the mouth of an animal who thought lunch was in the bag. The trick isn't used just with predators: More than a few people who are new to having an iguana as a pet have ended up screaming the first time they find themselves holding a thrashing tail instead of an iguana.
Smaller iguanas are more likely than larger ones to regrow their tails, usually in a few weeks. If the tail is in place but injured, or is only partially broken off, a visit to a veterinarian with experience in reptiles is in order to determine the best course of treatment.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: One or more of our three cats has a problem using the litter box, but we can't figure out which of them is guilty. The problem is with both liquid and solid waste, and there's no pattern that we can tell. The litter box is being used by at least one of the cats.
We don't want to punish any cat unfairly, and we haven't caught any of them in the act. Do you have any suggestions? -- P.K., via e-mail
A: Please put away the idea of punishing any of your cats. Punishment doesn't solve cat problems, and may make the situation worse by stressing out your pets.
It's certainly not unusual for a cat to stop using the litter box, for any number of reasons. Avoiding the litter box is not always strictly a behavior problem: Sometimes a cat is sick. But which cat? In a multicat household, it can be very difficult to figure out the culprit.
You can try to pinpoint the cat with problems by mixing blue or green food coloring 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 through and show up in the mess.
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. You'll be prescribed fluorescent dye to give to your pet and a black light for revealing the dye in urine that shows up where it shouldn't.
Once you've determined which cat is the source of the problem, you'll need to work with your veterinarian to be sure the problem isn't health-related. Litter-box problems can be challenging to resolve, especially in a household with more than one cat. But you won't have any chance of getting past those problems until you're certain you're working with a healthy cat.
If health isn't the issue, you can experiment with adding additional boxes in different locations, in case the problem is a territorial dispute among the cats. (As a general rule there should be one litter box per cat, plus one more.) If that doesn't help, work with a behaviorist who can tailor a program to help retrain the problem cat.
Q: How often does my dog need a rabies shot? -- G.J., via the Internet
A: Although vaccine protocols in general are shifting to put more time between boosters, rabies is the one vaccine that's covered not by the guidelines of good medicine but rather by the rule of law. Many places require rabies vaccination every three years, while others insist on an annual shot. Your veterinarian will know the law in your area, or you can contact your local animal-control department.
Rabies vaccines differ from all others in that they're not just for your pet's benefit: Our pets are protected from rabies as a way to protect humans from the disease. People do die from rabies, which is why the law is so unforgiving on the topic of vaccinations for pets.
Incidentally, while the focus of rabies prevention has traditionally been on dogs, cases of feline rabies are not uncommon. Even if a rabies vaccine is not required by law in your area, public-health officials strongly urge vaccinating cats as well, especially for cats who are allowed to roam. In an increasing number of places, rabies vaccinations for cats are mandated by law.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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