My first exposure to serious dog training came almost a quarter-century ago in a class taught by a man who'd trained dogs for the Air Force. His method was direct: The dog was to execute the command or be promptly corrected. His tool for training: the choke collar.
Used properly, he explained, the collar didn't choke the dog. Pull the leash quickly to pop the collar tight against the dog's neck and make the correction, and then let the leash go slack to release the collar.
I had a decent sense of timing and a bright dog, so I did well, took more classes, competed in obedience trials and later taught my own dog-training classes. As a trainer of group classes, I became frustrated with the choke-chain collar. People couldn't help but put it on upside-down, so it wouldn't release easily. And the timing of the snap-and-release action, even if the collar was on right, was too difficult for many people to master.
And there was one more problem. Used incorrectly, the choke-chain collar was more than ineffective: It was cruel.
Which is why in recent years I've been delighted to see the development of alternatives to the choke chain. These products are easier to master and easier on the dog, and they make possible one of the greatest pleasures in keeping a dog: taking a nice long walk with your friend.
Pat Miller, of Hagerstown, Md., an author, dog trainer and past president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, is supportive of no-chain training. "I do not advocate their use, even properly, due to the potential for physical injury and damage to the dog-human relationship," she says. "Many dogs train perfectly well on a flat collar, and the new front-clip control harnesses are a wonderful option."
Of the two no-chain methods of gaining control of a dog on-leash, head halters have been around longer. They work on the same principal in use for generations with horses: Control the head, and the body will follow. Canine head halters have two loops: one that fits over the top of the nose, and another that fits high over the back of the neck. Pressure on the leash pulls down on the loops from below.
"When a dog pulls on a leash, pressure on the dog's nose turns him back toward the person holding the leash, making it difficult for the dog to pull," explains Miller. "The halter also seems to have a depressing effect on some dogs, dampening out-of-control energy. The dog learns to walk politely on the leash in order to avoid the unpleasant pressure on his nose when he pulls."
The downside to a head halter, says Miller, is that some dogs don't like them, and they'll rub or claw at a halter even after they've been acclimated to it. Halters can also be difficult for some people to put on and adjust properly, which is why it's best to have the halter fitted by a trainer or a knowledgeable employee of a pet-supply store. Miller says that when she chooses a halter, it's usually for dogs who require a higher level of head control, such as an aggressive animal.
The new front-snap harnesses also work to use the dog's own forward motion to train him not to pull, says Miller.
"The new harnesses have a ring in the front where the leash attaches, so you get the same turning effect as the head halter. The pressure is on the shoulders, not the nose, so dogs find it less objectionable," she says. "I have not had even one dog fight the front-clip harness the way that many fight the head halter."
If you've been struggling to walk your dog, and especially if you've given up trying, it's time to break the chain and have your dog fitted for a head halter or front-clip harness. You'll both enjoy being able to walk together again.
Head halters are easy to find in pet-supply stores, catalogs and from online merchants. The Gentle Leader (around $20, depending on size) is perhaps the best-known of the brands, and was invented by a veterinary behaviorist and a dog trainer. For online information, go to www.premier.com. The site shows proper fitting and some training techniques.
Two front-clip harnesses are available, although these newer products haven't made the move to many mainstream pet-supply outlets and are available primarily from trainers, shelters or specialty training Web sites, as well as from their manufacturers.
The SENSE-sation harness (from $20 to $25, depending on size) is available from manufacturer SofTouch Concepts Inc. (www.softouchconcepts.com, 866-305-6145). The company is planning to launch a similar lower-priced product this fall, called the SENSE-ible harness. The K-9 Freedom harness (same price range) is available from Wayne Hightower (www.waynehightower.com, 800-246-6336).
Healthy rabbits need hay, green vegetables
While rabbit pellets are the basis of a healthy diet, you should supplement your bunny's rations with fresh greens. Fiber is especially important, too, which is why your rabbits need an endless supply of grass hay to nibble on -- fresh timothy and oat.
Rabbit-friendly foods include dandelion greens and flowers (collected from pesticide-free areas), carrots and carrot tops, kale, collard greens, escarole, romaine lettuce, endive, Swiss chard, parsley, clover, cabbage, green peppers, pea pods, Brussels sprouts, basil, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves, radicchio, bok choy and spinach. Ask your store's produce department for leaves trimmed from heads of broccoli or cauliflower, and you might even get some bunny food for free.
Variety is the spice of life, so keep things mixed up.
Offer fresh greens loosely chopped, two or more cups per day. If you haven't given your rabbit greens before, start with small amounts to avoid messy diarrhea caused by the sudden increase in liquid (fresh veggies are high in water content).
PETS ON THE WEB
Site offers the basics on popular corn snakes
Corn snakes are among the most popular of reptilian pets, prized for the striking appearance and generally easygoing nature. The Cornsnake Site (www.stormpages.com/dracoslair/Snakes/cornsnakes.html) offers a lot of information about these pets from someone who clearly adores them. Most endearing offering: "The Top 10 Reasons to Own a Cornsnake," including: "They have so many personalities ... just like people. Each snake you get is different. They almost never bite."
The site also mentions that unlike a boa constrictor, a corn snake will never get big enough to consume your baby sister.
The links are among the best features of this site and include a mention of www.kingsnake.com, one of the must-see sites for any reptile fancier. Although not mentioned on The Cornsnake Site, www.anapsid.org is another site that anyone with a reptile should have bookmarked for reference.
New pet profiler can provide peace of mind
Not long ago I received an e-mail from a reader who'd been hospitalized for a stroke and had been separated from her dog for several months as a result. Things went pretty well for both the reader and her dog. But looking back, she wished she'd put together a folder of information on her pet -- the food he liked, the commands he knew, even the dog park where his buddies would hang out.
While it's certainly possible to pull together all that information on our own, we may not think about the questions to ask ourselves in compiling it. Or we may not ever get around to it without someone to nudge us.
Enter Leslie Straka, a Seattle-area professional organizer whose Friends Forever system is designed to provide all the information anyone would need to care for your pet if you should become unable to.
"This is for people who treat their pets as a member of the family, not just a dog who's outside," says Straka. "It's a single document that puts it all in one place, and it takes care of your pet when you're not there."
Straka started offering the service by going to people's houses and interviewing them, then entering the information in a computer program designed by her husband, Dan Shapiro, who has worked in software development for Microsoft. She soon realized the need for such a product was universal and decided to expand to a telephone-based service.
The price for the telephone service starts at $89.95, which includes time on the phone, with Straka getting all the information she needs, and a report that's sent to your home by mail. There are additional charges for extra pets or for additional documents tailored to specific needs.
Straka sent me a fictional report for the cartoon dog Snoopy, and the scope of the information was impressive, with five questions on feeding alone. A finished report can run more than 50 pages, complete with images of the pet.
Starting later this year, Straka plans to offer the service on the Web at www.alwaysafriend.com. For more information on the Friends Forever service, visit the Web site or call 425-922-3760.
Vaccine guidelines changed for cats, too
Q: You wrote recently about vaccines for dogs, but I know that recommendations have changed for cats, too. We're planning on getting a kitten soon. Can you go over what shots are recommended? -- D.W., via e-mail
A: Like puppies, kittens need a series of vaccinations to protect them as they grow. Young mammals pick up antibodies from their mothers through the placenta and in the special milk, called colostrum, that they drink in the first days of their lives. These antibodies diminish over time. But until they do, they not only protect the kitten against disease, but they also may block the usefulness of any vaccine.
Although it's technically possible to determine exactly when a kitten's maternal antibodies have fallen to the point where a vaccine is necessary, doing so is impractical. That's why veterinarians give a series of shots to ensure that the kitten is protected as those maternal antibodies fade.
Here are some general vaccine guidelines for kittens.
Core vaccines: A combination vaccine gives protection against feline herpes virus, feline calicivirus and feline panleukopenia virus. The first combination vaccine is given when a kitten first comes in to see the veterinarian with additional shots at three- to four-week intervals until 16 weeks of age.
Vaccination against rabies is highly recommended for cats and may be required by law depending on where you live. Kittens get one shot with an annual booster, and then shots at three-year intervals, or as required by law.
Non-core vaccines: The need for all other vaccines should be discussed with your veterinarian. Some experts question the how well some of the non-core vaccines work, while others recommend non-core vaccines only for those cats who are at high risk for disease, such as pets allowed to roam outside.
Feline leukemia is one vaccine that should be considered, unless you're planning to keep your cat indoors. Kittens are tested for feline leukemia, then given one shot with a booster three to four weeks later.
The vaccine for feline infectious peritonitis is controversial, and some experts recommend it should be considered only for those cats living in large multi-cat households or breeding operations. Talk to your veterinarian about when the vaccine should be given, if at all.
If you are getting multiple vaccinations for your kitten, discuss spreading the vaccines out and not having more than one or two inoculations given in any one visit. If too many shots are administered at one time, the potential for reactions or interactions may be greater.
In adult cats, the risk of vaccine-site sarcoma -- cancer at the injection site -- must be taken into account when weighing the risks of vaccines vs. their benefits. The trend overall is to tailor vaccines to the lifestyles of individual cats, to increase the amount of time between boosters, and to give shots at various times, in different places on the body. Keep an eye on vaccine sites, and report any lump that grows or persists more than a couple of weeks.
A good overview of the American Academy of Feline Practitioners recommendations on vaccines can be found on the Winn Feline Foundation's Web site at www.winnfelinehealth.org/health/vaccination-guidelines.html.
The bottom line: Discuss with your veterinarian what vaccinations your kitten needs, what risks are involved, and how you can best minimize those risks. Keep in mind, however, that despite the risks, vaccines still prevent many times more death than they cause.
A good veterinarian will be following the changing view of routine vaccinations and should be up on the latest recommendations in preventive care for your new kitten.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Are those ... pimples?
Did you know cats can get acne, too? Although most classic acne cases occur in cats who are simply not good chin groomers, there are other possibilities, including mites, ringworm and allergies.
You'll need the help of your veterinarian to get your cat's chin cleared up. The area needs to be kept washed, at the very least, resisting the urge to squeeze any blemishes. You may additionally get prescribed creams and pills.
Since some cases are caused by an allergy to plastic, your veterinarian will probably also recommend switching to ceramic or stainless food and water dishes, and keeping them scrupulously clean.
Ordinary feline acne is more of an aesthetic dilemma than a serious health concern. As long as the area doesn't become infected, your cat won't be bothered by the blemishes.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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