Obedience training for dogs, necessary as it is for the development of a well-mannered companion, has one built-in problem, in the mind of dog trainer and author Liz Palika.
"General obedience has a tendency to be too serious," she says. "Even when you're trying to be positive with your dog, there's a tendency to be too serious."
Peg that to the boot-camp mentality a lot of pet owners can't shake when it comes to obedience training, despite the introduction of more positive motivation methods in most training classes. In the minds of many dog lovers still, you take your dog to class to "break" him of annoying behaviors, to bark commands at him, to correct him for being "bad."
Your dog may be learning, but neither of you is having any fun. That's why Palika likes trick-training.
"When you get people to laugh, you have it made," she says. "It's so much fun for the dog, too. They're getting your attention, and you're laughing. Dogs know what laughter is, and they pick up your attitude."
Palika has been a dog trainer for more than 20 years and the author of pet-care books for a decade. She started her career as a dog handler in the military and now teaches dog-training classes out of the tidy compound in a former pasture north of San Diego. Obedience training may be her bread and butter, but she loves to get her students to teach their dogs tricks, too.
Sometimes it's not just for fun: Some of the trick-trained dogs from her classes end up showing off their skills at pet-therapy visits, and a couple have landed paid gigs in advertising.
But it's that changing of attitude that Palika likes about trick-training most of all. You're having fun with your dog, but he's still learning, she says, and this can be a great confidence-builder for a shy dog.
So where to start? Palika says to consider the temperament and physical abilities of your dog. Some tricks are best for active dogs, while others are well-suited to couch potatoes. Some physical limitations apply as well: Dogs with long backs, such as dachshunds, shouldn't be taught to beg because sitting up can put strain on their backs. "Safety is always an issue," she says.
Above all, be modest in your expectations. "Don't try to do the more elaborate tricks first," says Palika. "Your dog will get discouraged, and you'll get discouraged. Start with the basics and work your way up."
The basics start with some of those behaviors commonly taught in obedience classes: "sit," "down" and "stay," along with the request for attention, "watch me." From these basics, it's easy to train the more simple of tricks, including "shake hands" and "roll over," ideal for the more sedentary dogs. For active dogs, weaving through an owner's legs while walking is an easy one to teach. With the addition of some relatively inexpensive equipment, such as hoops, tunnels and jumps, you can come up with routines that everyone will enjoy, including your dog.
Best of all, when your dog does succeed, the relationship between you will improve. "Once you're successful at a couple of tricks, it's addictive," says Palika.
Are you ready to have fun with your dog? Trick-training doesn't take much more than a dog, some treats, some time and an upbeat attitude. Several books are available to help get you started. Among them:
Liz Palika's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dog Tricks" (Alpha Books, $15) not only shows you how to teach your dog tricks, but also helps you to understand why trick-training is so useful and rewarding for you both. The guide explains how to decide which tricks are best for any individual dog, and how to lay the groundwork for ever more advanced behaviors. Clear step-by-step instructions and lots of pictures help immensely.
If you want to learn a few new tricks yourself, pick up Deborah Jones' "Clicker Fun: Dog Tricks and Games Using Positive Reinforcement" (Howlin Moon Press, $20). "Clicker" training uses a small noisemaker to "mark" a good behavior and then follows that noise with a treat. The technique is called "operant conditioning" and got its start as a practical tool by trainers of marine mammals. The use of a clicker has really gained ground in dog training in recent years, and it's well-suited for training tricks. -- G.S.
'Dusty' cockatoo perfectly normal
Q: We bought a cockatoo and cage recently from some people who were moving. Diva is very affectionate and playful, but she constantly sheds white powder that gets all over our clothes. It doesn't seem like it would be healthy to breathe, either. Is there something we can add to the diet, or spray on her, to stop this? -- D.B., via e-mail
A: Some species of pet birds -- the cockatoo is perhaps the best example -- give off a great deal of feather dust, a natural, powdery grooming material that originates from the powderdown feathers over the flank and hip areas. As you've discovered, this powder can make quite the mess. I once spent a few minutes snuggling with an adorable Moluccan cockatoo at my veterinarian's office and ended up with my dark T-shirt almost completely covered in white powder.
I'm sorry to say that the powder is perfectly normal and necessary for your bird, and living with it is part of the deal of sharing your life with a cockatoo. A room-sized air cleaner will help remove the floating powder and will make breathing better for all of you, Diva included. The only other advice I can give you is the same advice given by a friend with a large white dog who sheds constantly: Never wear black.
Keep a kitty garden
Q: You've said it's a good idea to provide indoor cats with plants to chew on. What kind of plants are best for cats to eat? -- P.C., via e-mail
A: It's easy to keep greens on hand for your cat's nibbling pleasure. It doesn't take much of a green thumb, and indoor kitties in particular will be ever so grateful for your thoughtfulness.
Grasses are always a favorite. Since cats seem to like the most tender shoots best, sow a fresh crop every couple of weeks in a wide, shallow planter. Alfalfa, rye and wheat seeds are ideal. You can find seeds from catalogs or nurseries. Choose organic seeds to make sure they haven't been treated with something your cat doesn't need to eat. If you search pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites, you can find pre-packaged kitty greens, complete with seeds, soil and planter. All you need do is add water.
Parsley and thyme are also popular with some cats. Any decent nursery will have seeds or young plants ready to be transplanted into a pot. Experiment and see what your cat like best!
Spaying young kittens
Q: Our sweet old cat died last year. After a few catless months for the first time in our marriage, we decided it was time for a kitten. We were a little shocked to find out the shelter spays the kittens before they go to new homes. Is that really safe? -- L.E., via e-mail
A: Puppies and kittens can be safely neutered as young as 8 weeks. And studies have consistently shown no long-term problems with health or behavior for surgeries that are done earlier than the 4- to 6-month ideal previously considered to be standard procedure.
If your shelter's policy is to insist on early spay-neuter, I wouldn't let that deter you from adopting a kitten there. On the contrary, such policies show that the organization is actively fighting pet overpopulation by trying to stop the "kittens-out, kittens-in" cycle that happens when last year's babies become this year's parents.
If you end up with a kitten from another source, follow your veterinarian's advice on when to alter your pet. Although early spay-neuter is safe, not all veterinarians are comfortable with performing the operation that early.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Encouraging cats to drink more
Do you think of nutrition as being just about what your cat eats? Don't forget that what your cat drinks is just as important to her well-being. Water -- clean, fresh and ever-present -- is essential to nearly every process of your cat's body, which is 70 percent water.
The tiniest cells of living beings cannot survive without water. Nutrients are carried and wastes removed by water. A cat may be able to survive without eating for weeks if need be (please don't test this fact, though), but without water, death comes in days.
Problem is, cats can be difficult to keep hydrated. Always make sure you supply your cat with water, and encourage her to drink by keeping the dish clean and the water fresh. Some cats prefer running water, and some owners oblige by opening taps for their pets.
Some manufacturers sell pet fountains that constantly recycle water to make it seem fresh to a finicky feline. If your pet-products supplier doesn't carry these products, check out the ads in the back of any cat magazine. Feline fountains pop up pretty regularly there.
(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.)
Indulge your catnip junkie
Not all cats like catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hard-wired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all.
Among those cats who do like catnip, you'll find two basic kinds of reactions: Your cat may seem to become a lazy drunk or a wired-up crazy. Credit a substance called "nepetalactone," which is found in the leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior.
Is catnip safe? While some cat experts recommend that you grow your own catnip or buy only organically raised products, the consensus is that you can treat your cat as often as you (and your cat) wish. Catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and harmless.
Big dogs present big challenges
Is a large dog right for you, or will a smaller one do?
Large dogs are the perfect choice for active people: joggers, hikers and cross-country skiers. Large dogs can pull a wagon, walk for miles, chase a ball for hours. They are usually not so sensitive to the ear-pulls and tail-grabs of children, and a solid pat on the ribs will not send them flying across the room.
Of course, there are trade-offs. The bigger a dog gets, the more food eaten and the more waste produced. Big dogs are harder to handle, especially when young. They're more likely to knock over your toddler or your grandmother, more capable of destroying your home, and more likely to inflict a serious injury should they decide to bite. A pushy small dog is annoying; a pushy large one is dangerous. Large dogs are harder to travel with and more expensive to arrange vacation care for. If you don't own your own home, you may find securing housing that accepts a large dog nearly impossible.
Larger breeds generally need more exercise and are more likely to find other ways to shed nervous energy -- like digging, barking or chewing -- if they don't get enough to keep them happy. Even the largest dogs are not impossible to keep in apartments, townhouses and homes with small yards, but you have to work doubly hard to meet their exercise needs under those circumstances.
In some breeds, the size difference between males and females is dramatic -- as much as 3 to 6 inches and up to 40 pounds or more. If you're attracted to the looks of large breeds such as the Rottweiler or Bernese mountain dog but want don't want such a large pet, consider a female.
PETS ON THE WEB
Site for fans of eight-legged pets
Looking for a pet that's a little different and sure to scare most of the people you know? Consider a tarantula! The American Tarantula Society (www.atshq.org) has put together a site that celebrates these large arachnids (that's spiders to the rest of us) with useful care information as well as articles that are more in-depth and academic in tone. The pieces include information on how to know when a tarantula is sick and what to do to help.
Most interesting is the gift shop, where you can buy T-shirts, books and even live spiders. Yes, for a small cost you can have a baby tarantula show up in your mailbox. (The stuff of some people's nightmares is a dream come true to others, I suppose.) The ATS site also has pictures, and a nifty bulletin board frequented by serious hobbyists and beginners alike. Arachnophobics, beware! -- G.S.
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.
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