We get e-mails every day asking about "the farm."
What farm, you ask? The one where many imagine their unmanageable dog will be welcomed, along with countless others. A farm where dogs run leash-free, with no children to bite, no cats to kill, no home or yard to destroy, and no nearby neighbors to hear the barking, barking, barking.
"We can't handle our dog anymore," someone will write to us desperately. "We need to find him a home on a farm."
Of course, no such farms exist. The responsibility for correcting your dog's behavior problems rests solely with you. His quality of life is at considerable risk -- and likely his very life: Dogs with serious behavior problems whose owners give up on them are often euthanized after adoption efforts fail.
It doesn't have to be that way. While some behavior problems aren't fixable, most can be. To accomplish such change, though, you have to be prepared to put some time into changing the situation. Quick-fix, halfhearted efforts are doomed from the start.
The first rule of solving any behavioral problem is to make sure it's not a medical problem. Health issues that cause or contribute to behavior problems must first be accurately diagnosed and treated with the help of your veterinarian.
When your pet is healthy, your veterinarian can still be of use. While few veterinarians have the certified training or knowledge to help solve behavior problems, the number of those who do is growing -- and your vet may be one of them. Even those veterinarians who have no interest in behavior work can refer you to someone who can help. Loosely grouped under the term "behaviorist," these pet professionals can help you fix what ails the relationship you have with your pet.
Consulting a behaviorist can save you time, money and aggravation. Time, because someone with experience in animal behavior can quickly determine the root of the problem, without the emotional baggage that a pet owner may bring to the situation. Money, because a consultation or two is a great deal cheaper than replacing a chewed couch or blitzed landscaping. And aggravation? You'll understand that one if you've ever lived with a problem pet.
One of the best choices for help is a veterinarian who has received additional certification in solving pet-behavior problems. These professionals have gone through years of study in animal health and behavior and have done a residency in the field as well. One plus with this group: They can prescribe medications to help correct behavior problems as part of an overall program.
People with other academic degrees (such as psychology) and people who've picked up their knowledge in the field also make themselves available for advising on behavior. Some in the latter group can be excellent, so don't let a lack of degrees deter you from getting help from someone who has studied in the "school of hard knocks" (or would that be the "school of bites and scratches"?).
Behaviorists are not "trainers" in the sense of offering group obedience classes to sharpen a pet's manners. Instead, they work one-on-one with you to solve a specific behavior problem.
If you're in a situation where you're thinking of dumping your pet, ask your veterinarian for help, or call your closest college of veterinary medicine. And quit dreaming about that imaginary farm where all bad dogs are welcome. It exists only in those dreams.
Instead, get help to get the dog you dreamed of owning.
Getting help with pet's noise fears
Q: Can you suggest some ways for us to cope with our dog's fear of loud storms? -- K.R., via e-mail
A: Some breeds and types of dogs seem to be more high-strung and sensitive to noise, but the truth is that any dog can become terrified of storms. After all, a storm is more than just thunder: The atmospheric pressure changes, the sky lights up, static electricity builds, and rain pounds on the roof. The smells in the air are so different that even we scent-challenged humans say, "Smells like rain." Imagine what an incoming storm smells like to our dogs.
Sometimes all you need to do is to eliminate the static electricity in the air: Try wiping your dog with a dryer sheet. It can really help.
For other dogs, fear of thunderstorms increases because their people mishandle the early signs of fear -- either by soothing the dog or by punishing her. Soothing a dog ("Poor baby! Don't be afraid. Come here and get a hug.") rewards the behavior, while punishing a dog makes a scary event even more frightening.
Sensitivity to loud noises is easier to prevent than to cure, unfortunately. When puppies and young dogs show concern, one strategy is to distract them. Give them something positive to do, such as starting a training session with lots of treats or playing a favorite game. In other words, ignore the storm, distract the dog and set the tone by acting unconcerned. With a new dog, the first time there is a storm, pretend it is an invitation to a "storm party." With every crack of thunder, respond, "Whoopee! That was a fun one. Here's your storm cookie!" Couple this with happy requests for simple obedience commands.
Once a dog has developed a full-blown phobia, though, the fear of storms is quite dramatic and can be dangerous. Some dogs may tremble, others may destroy their surroundings, and still others may bite out of fear.
If your dog is afraid of loud noises that you can predict -- fireworks on holidays, for example -- ask your veterinarian to prescribe a sedative for your pet just for those days.
For fearful dogs, your best bet is asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist will work with you on a treatment plan that may include medications, counterconditioning, pheromones and even anti-static jackets in an effort to help a dog to relax when it's loud. -- Dr. Marty Becker
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Cats shortchanged by many pet owners
-- Cats receive only half of the health care protection that dogs do, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. In another study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), pet owners with at least one dog and one cat in their household said they were more attached to the dog than the cat by a 3-to-1 margin. A third of pet owners surveyed believe it's more critical to take a dog than a cat for a wellness exam with their veterinarian, an alarming statistic as cats are less likely to show signs of sickness or pain than dogs.
-- One Maltese is now a million-dollar beauty, crowned with a $4.2 million tiara made by her owner, a Thai jewelry designer. The designer wanted to do something special for his 15-year-old dog and had a crown made for her from precious stones handed down to him from his mother. The crown took two months to make and is crafted out of titanium and 250 carats of emeralds and diamonds.
-- British pets are also experiencing the struggles of a poor economy. Last year the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported the number of abandoned animals increasing by 57 percent. Britons have also increased their inquiries about giving up their pets by 52 percent. The United Kingdom's best-known animal rescue center, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, in South London, is struggling to fit in more animals: Last December the charity reported taking in more than 1,000 more pets than it had the previous year.
-- One drug-detection dog wasn't at all slowed down by a novel attempt at distraction: The 31 pounds of marijuana the dog flagged were stashed in bags of dog food. The El Paso, Texas, drug dog wasn't deterred by the smell of dinner, resulting in the arrest of the 25-year-old Juarez, Mexico, man driving the dog food-loaded car. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Preparation key to safe air travel for pets
Planning air travel with a pet? Before your pet flies:
-- Talk to the airline. You'll need a reservation, need to know where and when your pet has to be presented, and what papers you'll need to bring. Airlines charge extra even for those pets who fly in a carry-on bag, so ask about fees in advance so you won't be surprised.
-- Be sure your pet is in good health. Air travel isn't recommended for elderly or ill animals, and is likewise ill-advised for the pug-nosed breeds of dogs and cats. Contrary to popular belief, it's generally safer for your pet not to be tranquilized before flying. Talk to your veterinarian.
For pets who'll be traveling in the cargo hold, use a hard-sided carrier designed for air travel, and make sure it's in good condition and all bolts are tight. You'll need food and water bowls, and bagged food duct-taped to the top of the carrier. Pets small enough to ride in the passenger cabin will be more comfortable in a soft-sided carrier.
-- Consider travel conditions. Don't ship your pet when the weather is extreme or when air traffic is heaviest. Some airlines offer terminal-to-plane transport in climate-controlled vans. Ask what provisions will be made to protect your pet and when the airlines will not allow your pet to fly because of weather conditions.
-- Choose a direct flight. If that's not possible, try for a route with a single connection and a short layover. Direct flights eliminate layovers, and short layovers reduce the time on the ground. -- Dr. Marty Becker
BY THE NUMBERS
Good dog, safe dog
Although free-roaming, vicious dogs are the stuff of our nightmares, we are statistically more likely to be bitten by dogs we know. Experts say the number of serious or deadly dog bites can be dramatically reduced by neutering and by raising animals to be well-socialized, well-trained family members (as opposed to having neglected outdoor "protection" dogs).
Here are some dog-bite statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:
-- 80 percent of dog-bite incidents involving children are inflicted by a family dog (30 percent) or a neighbor's dog (50 percent).
-- 75 percent of fatal dog bites were inflicted on family members or guests on the family's property.
-- 8 percent of dog bites involving adults were work-related (inflicted on such workers as meter readers, repairmen, etc.).
Bleach is a pet owner's pal
Anyone who has pets should be well-acquainted with one of the most common household cleaning supplies: bleach.
This cleaning staple can't be beat when it comes to keeping animal-related objects and surfaces clean. Cages, perches, litter boxes, nonporous toys and more can be cleaned with bleach -- diluted a half-cup to a gallon of water -- then rinsed with clear water and left to air-dry.
Diluted bleach in a spray bottle is also perfect for cleaning off countertops after preparing meals for pets (or other family members), especially if you make meals from scratch. You don't have to pay for a pre-mix either: Just buy a spray bottle, label it with a permanent marker and keep it loaded.
Be sure to use bleach and all household cleaners far away from pets (especially birds, who have very sensitive respiratory systems) and in a well-ventilated area. -- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.