One of the best things to happen to dogs and those who love them is the growth in popularity of off-leash recreation areas nationwide.
As open spaces dwindle and property values make the large suburban back yard a thing of the past, these dog parks have emerged as a way to provide what most dogs desperately need: more exercise. Sedentary dogs develop health issues, such as obesity, and behavior problems that are worsened by excess energy and boredom, such as digging, barking, destructive chewing and that catch-all complaint of dog lovers everywhere: "He's too hyper!"
Dog parks make dogs tired, and a tired dog is a happy, good dog.
But the free-wheeling atmosphere of a dog park is not a good fit with every canine, and it's important to know before you click off the leash if your dog belongs inside an off-leash recreation area. And you need to know a few things about your behavior, too, to make your pet's dog-park experience better and safer for all.
The best candidate for a dog park is a healthy, well-socialized and friendly dog of medium size or larger. Smaller dogs are more easily hurt, and shy ones can be intimidated. Dogs who are aggressive toward people or other dogs have absolutely no business in a dog park, no excuses.
Puppies who have not completed their course of vaccinations and haven't been cleared by the veterinarian for outings should also stay clear. That's because you just can't tell the disease status of other canine visitors. And until your pup's immunity is where it should be, you're taking a potentially deadly risk by introducing him to a dog park.
The biggest problem with dog parks is not the dogs, but the people. Some of those problems are caused by people who know better, but other conflicts could easily be prevented with a little knowledge and foresight on the part of dog owners who truly don't know better.
The preparation begins before you ever set foot inside a park with your dog. Don't go in with food (for either you or your dog) or with your dog's favorite toy, since these high-value items can trigger fights. Do go in with lots of clean-up bags, and be sure to use them.
Once inside, don't open a book or get too involved in socializing with the other dog lovers. Your dog needs to be monitored at all times to keep him out of trouble. Don't allow your dog to be bullied, and don't allow your dog to bully others. Sometimes the park mix isn't a good one, and you need to take your dog home.
Dog parks work only when people work at them. If park problems become more the rule than the exception, the trend will reverse and the dog park will disappear. Be responsible for your dog and help to keep the drive for more dog parks alive.
No leashes, but whose rules?
Despite the growing popularity of off-leash recreation for dogs, there are a few controversies when it comes to rules, primarily:
-- Children. Some who are looking for an outing with both their children and their pets want dog parks to be open to children. Proponents of "child-free" dog parks argue that children could get hurt by rambunctious dogs. If a child gets hurt, the dog will get blamed, they say, so it's better to leave children outside the gates.
-- Small dog/big dog. Some small dogs think they're big dogs. Some big dogs think small dogs are edible. The clash of attitudes does not work out well for small dogs. Many dog parks are now adding a separate area that's just for small dogs.
-- Fighting breeds. Pit bull terriers and other breeds developed for dog-fighting (and mixes of these breeds) are arguably not safe around other dogs. The pit bull advocacy group Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls (BAD RAP, www.badrap.org), warns: "Never trust a pit bull not to fight" and suggests other types of recreation for these dogs.
-- Unneutered male dogs. Young male dogs who have not been altered are generally more territorial and more likely to fight.
Of the four common dog-park controversies, only the small dog/big dog issue seems to be easily remedied to the satisfaction of all sides. While arguments continue over who should be allowed in, savvy dog-park users sensibly vote with their feet, taking their animals out whenever any situation starts to develop that could spell trouble. -- G.S.
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Don't teach pup to be finicky
Q: I have a 4-month-old toy poodle. He seems to be almost totally uninterested in food. He eats only a few bites a day of his dry food, and I spend most of my waking hours trying to dream up things he might be interested in eating, most to no avail.
He is not ill. He is incredibly playful and seems to be full of energy and vigor, but I don't know what the eating deal is. -- C.Y., via e-mail
A: You are teaching your dog to be a finicky eater. Look at it from his point of view. He's a normal, active puppy, easily distracted and wanting to play, play, play. Food? Just not that exciting.
You put down dry food. He'd rather play. You add something yummy, it catches his interest, and he eats. But the next day, he'd rather play. So you try something else ... and something else ... and something else.
What have you taught your pup? You've shown him that if he waits, something better (or at least different) will come along. Stop, or you'll soon be opening cans of caviar for him.
Puppies should be fed three times a day until the age of 6 months or so, when they can go to the twice-a-day schedule that adult dogs should be on. Don't keep food available at all times. It makes house-training more difficult and removes the power of food as a training tool. (Fresh water, on the other hand, should always be accessible.)
Give your little guy a quiet place to eat with no distractions. A crate is ideal, but a small room with a baby gate across it will also do. Put the food down and leave your pup alone for 15 to 20 minutes. Then pick up the food, eaten or not, and give your pet no food until the next scheduled feeding. Repeat at noon and at night.
Don't worry if he misses a meal. He won't starve. Resist the temptation to give him treats in between, because it doesn't take much to fill up a small dog.
If you want to add something to increase palatability, warm and add a little low-sodium, nonfat chicken broth. But that's it. Don't fall back into the habit of constantly finding something "better." Give your pet a high-quality food and teach him to eat what's offered. You'll both be better off.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
PETS ON THE WEB
Diabetic cats get best advice on site
If only every chronic pet illness had a Web site as helpful and supportive as the one dedicated to feline diabetes (www.felinediabetes.com).
Administered by a cat-loving physician, the site offers everything an owner needs to know (but maybe didn't think to ask the veterinarian) about caring for a pet with this disease. What is it like to live with such an animal? You'll find that here, along with tips on using syringes and monitoring a pet's sugar levels. There's also a message board with thousands of posts on the challenges of the disease.
Feline Diabetes recently added an online store offering an innovative litter box that makes it easier to collect urine for testing. The box features washable, non-absorbent litter that can be rinsed with a mild antibacterial solution in anticipation of a diabetic cat's using it. The urine then flows into a reservoir for testing.
Any cat lover dealing with the diagnosis of feline diabetes absolutely must spend some time on this site. It's designed and developed with good science behind it, but also plenty of love. -- G.S.
Fiber can help eliminate hairballs
Tired of cleaning up hairballs? Add some fiber to your cat's diet.
A little bit of canned pumpkin -– plain pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling -- added to your pet's regular meals will help the fur ingested by grooming to pass through the digestive system, instead of being thrown up onto your carpets. Combine it with canned food for palatability, or mix it with a little water from canned tuna or clams.
Regular combing and brushing also helps, especially if your pet has long hair. The fur you catch when grooming your cat won't end up as a hairball, or as hair you'll be cleaning off your clothes.
Canned pumpkin has an advantage over oil-based hairball remedies: Overusing the latter can decrease the absorption of some essential nutrients.
(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.)
Timely neutering can help end kitten surplus
With kitten season getting ready to roll, it's especially important to get those cats fixed. The advantages:
-- A neutered tomcat is less likely to roam, less likely to fight (and less likely to cost you money to patch him up), and less likely to spray urine to mark his territory. He's more likely to live longer, because the cat who's looking for a mate is really looking for trouble. If a car doesn't get him, infectious disease (spread by fighting or mating) or cancer may.
-- A spayed female is a more attentive and loving pet because her energy isn't constantly directed toward finding a mate. Cats are in heat nearly all the time until they become pregnant. If you spay your cat, you protect her from some cancers and infections, and from sexually transmitted infectious diseases.
"Spaying" and "neutering" are the everyday terms for the surgical sterilization of a pet. Neutering -- or altering -- is also used to describe both procedures. The technical terms for the two operations are "ovariohysterectomy," for the female, and "castration," for the male -- which pretty much explains why "spaying" and "neutering" are the preferred terms.
Most of the people who end up trying to find homes for kittens didn't mean for their pets to breed. They just didn't get a young cat to the veterinarian in time to prevent pregnancy. Your kitten can become pregnant before she's even half-grown, which is why many shelters these days alter cats before adoption, as early as 8 weeks of age.
If your cat is an accident waiting to happen, don't delay. The arguments are solid in favor of altering your pet, and you need go no farther than your local shelter to find them.
Basic bird manners start with "step up"
The "step up" command is basic to having a well-behaved pet parrot. Like dogs, birds are social climbers and will take advantage of the human who isn't perceived as leadership material. The bird who understands and reacts properly to "step up" is one who also knows you're in charge.
If you have a well-socialized young bird, you should be able to teach "step up" pretty easily. Start with your bird on your hand, or on a T-stand perch. Ask your bird to "step up" on your finger (for small birds) or hand (for large birds) by pressing against his belly, just above the legs. Offer praise and a favorite treat (such as a seed) for complying.
Ask your bird to "step up" at least a dozen times a day -- to leave his cage, to be petted, to move from room to room -- and you'll be on your way to having a well-mannered 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.
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