It's truly a shame how few things most people teach their dogs. What many people don't realize is that training is a way of communicating with your dog, of sharing a common language. The more you teach your dog, the more you both will get out of your relationship. Training will also make your dog a better companion, because he'll become more confident and secure, and more comfortable and trusting in your leadership.
While many people can't seem to think beyond the basics of canine good manners -- sit, stay and such -- the fact is that the training possibilities for most dogs are restricted only by the imagination of the owner. Consider that service dogs are routinely trained to perform dozens of different tasks, from pulling wheelchairs to picking up dropped items to turning off lights. Maybe your dog's not as smart as a service dog, but even if he's only half as smart, he can learn a couple of dozen more things than he knows now.
You can train your dog with the help of others, such as by taking classes in fun canine sports like agility. You don't have to train to be competitive: Just getting your dog out to class and practicing is more than enough for many, and plenty of fun for all.
If you don't want to get into something more organized, you can always teach your dog tricks at home.
Some dogs are better at some tricks than others are. A small, agile terrier may find jumping through hoops easier than a bulldog would. In addition, a retriever is probably more willing to hold things in his mouth than a Pekinese. A basset hound can probably roll over, but may find begging a little hard, being a little top-heavy. So think about your dog's form and aptitudes before you start. You may notice something special your dog does that would be entertaining if you can get him to do it on command. Guess what? You can. Give it a name, use that word when he's most likely to do his thing, and praise him for "obeying." He'll make the connection soon enough.
I did that with Benjamin, my big retriever, who makes a sound that's halfway between a bark and a howl when it's time for his breakfast. I called it "woo-woo" and started saying "woo-woo" just as I could see his mouth preparing to make this sound. When the woo-woo came out, I praised him, even though it was a coincidence at first. Now, he "woo-woos" on command.
I also worked with his natural retrieving abilities to teach him to pick up his stuffed toys and put them into the washing machine. On the command: "Go find!" He'll run through the house searching, until finally every stuffed toy is swirling in the soapy water. Each of my animals knows a special trick or two that I developed just by adapting something they did naturally. (That includes the parrot!)
Look for an opportunity to turn your dog's special talents into a routine that's fun for you both, and consider adding a canine sport to your lives. No matter the age of the dog or the people who love him, training is always a worthwhile way to spend time with your pet.
PETS ON THE WEB
NorCal Aussie Rescue (http://norcalaussierescue.com) has a Web site that other rescue groups would be well-advised to take note of. The site is beautifully designed, loads quickly and is constantly changing to reflect both dogs needing adoption and the success stories of those who've found their "forever homes."
"Our philosophy is to keep our site fun and positive," says group president Kim Kuenlen. "There are so many tragic stories in the animal-rescue world, and people get emotionally drained when they are faced with it over and over. We focus on the positive aspects of rescue: We celebrate our successes and always thank our supporters and all the people who adopt from us."
The site has one of the niftiest features I've ever seen: An order form for "My Dog" products that put any dog's face on a T-shirt, mouse pad, mug or other item that also promotes the rescue group's message, thus raising awareness and donations with just a few clicks of a mouse. Outstanding!
Retail giants Petco and Petsmart have been very supportive of dog and cat adoptions in their stores, but have come under criticism for their sales of other pets, especially rabbits. Activists say the sale of baby bunnies without regard to the ability of the buyer to care for the animal leads to abandonment at shelters and with rescue groups, and both are swamped with many times more rabbits then there are homes for.
As reported in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, one of these retailers, San Diego-based Petco, is running a trial program in the Twin Cities to expand the chain's adoption support to rabbits. You can't buy a bunny at the four area Petco stores, but you can work with Minnesota House Rabbit Society volunteers to adopt one who needs a new home. With any luck, the trial will be a huge success and will expand nationwide, encouraging adoptions and dropping the volume of impulse-purchase pets being dumped when the novelty wears off.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Do you know how I could meet a veterinarian to date? -- S.P.
A: I got such a laugh out of your question! I swear, every single pet lover who has ever spent any amount of time or money at a veterinary hospital has given at least passing thought to the idea that a veterinarian would be a perfect (and money-saving) mate. I was at a book signing once when a woman confessed to me that she had a serious crush on her pets' married veterinarian -- who also happened to be my pets' veterinarian! (And yes, he's adorable.)
I suppose you could up the odds of meeting veterinarians by moving to a place with a university that has a school or college of veterinary medicine, such as Davis, Calif., Gainesville, Fla., or Fort Collins, Colo. You'd run into more student veterinarians than practicing ones, but who knows: You might luck out.
As a single pet lover, I too, used to think a veterinarian would be a perfect match for me. But I soon realized the flaw in my plan. See, I'm extremely particular about the quality of care my pets receive, which means I'm extremely picky about my pets' veterinarians. What are the chances of finding a veterinarian who'd be both excellent at what he does and a good match for me as a potential mate? Very, very slim, I realized.
And what if I met a veterinarian who was a good match for me personally, but whose professional skills left much to be desired? "Sorry, honey. I love you, but I don't think I want you treating my pets."
See the dilemma?
In the end, I decided it just wasn't worth thinking about anymore. The veterinarians I go to (one for the parrot, one for the rest of the animals) are outstanding at what they do, and that's all I want from them.
Q: I would like to add something to your column about neutering. If people are interested in having their kids experience "the miracle of birth" with a mom cat, there are lots of pregnant cats available who need foster homes.
My rescue group has at least 15 moms-to-be in foster care now. Once the kittens are weaned, we have everybody neutered and put up for adoption. We supply the foster parents with all the supplies and advice, plus veterinary help if needed.
What better way to teach kids and adults about responsibility, charity and the wonder of day-old kittens all in the same package? -- G.J.
A: Thank you for your excellent suggestion. You're right: Fostering is the perfect way to introduce children both to responsible pet stewardship and to the experience of helping to raise baby animals. Having children to help socialize the kittens will make the babies even more adoptable, so there's no downside to such an arrangement.
It's the height of kitten season now, which means every shelter and rescue group has pregnant cats in desperate need of foster families. Please consider helping out, whether you have children or not. And above all, please don't add to the problem: If you have an unaltered pet, call and make that neutering appointment today. You'll be helping to end pet overpopulation, and you'll be giving yourself a healthier, happier pet.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600