Every year more of my yard gets turned over to sustainable projects, from my pet chickens and their fresh eggs to an ever-growing collection of raised beds and containers planted with the veggies I love -- and some flowers, too.
This year, I'm taking back a huge swath of lawn, fencing it off and having a contractor really go to town, doubling the size of my garden and putting in drip irrigation and mulched paths to save on weeding and water. The way I'm planning it, my yard will be beautiful and productive -- and I'm doing this while continuing to share my life with my dogs.
And you can, too. That's because dogs and lush gardens -- whether productive or decorative -- aren't mutually exclusive.
You can't just plant whatever you want where you want it and throw a bored, unsupervised dog into the mix. Instead, plan your yard to take your dog into account, and mind your dog's needs to get him to leave the plants alone. The basic guidelines:
-- Exercise your dog. A dog with too much energy isn't one you want to leave alone all day in a nice yard -- and yet that's exactly what many people do. If you don't take care of your dog's exercise requirements, he's going to take care of them on his own, by digging a hole to China or by removing the shrubs in your yard.
Dogs who don't get daily exercise are likely to expend that energy and cure boredom by doing things people don't like -- digging, chewing and barking. Dogs who are well-exercised are more likely to sleep while you are gone. When you leave, you should also offer your dog alternatives to choosing his own amusements: Provide him with chew toys. You can make them more appealing by praising him for using them and by stuffing hollow toys -- such as a Kong -- with something delicious, like peanut butter.
-- Work with your dog's habits. Observe how your dog uses your yard, and plan accordingly. For instance, many dogs consider it their duty to run the fence line, leaving a well-worn trail where many people hope to put flowers. Instead of fighting with your dog, go with his natural instincts. Place your beds and plantings away from the fence line, and let him do his guard-dog patrolling behind those plants.
-- Consider giving your dog a yard of his own. At my house, the dogs are never let out in the main yard without supervision -- and the veggie garden and chicken areas are fenced off -- but they come and go at will into a side yard that's just for them. A low fence covered with climbing roses hides from view both the dog yard and the chicken/veggie areas.
-- Redirect digging. Some breeds were developed to dig, and expecting them not to indulge in it is unfair. You can find most of these digging dogs in the terrier group -- the word terrier comes from terra, for "earth."
You can keep many dogs from digging if you keep them exercised, limit their access to dirt and make the digging experience unpleasant. Sometimes, putting the dog's own stools in the hole and covering them with dirt deters them. Many dogs won't dig if their own mess is under the surface.
Another option is giving your dog a dig zone. While hardly clean fun, it is good fun, especially for dogs who are happiest with their noses in the dirt and their paws flying.
-- Put special plants in safer places. Raised beds and hanging planters are the place to put your most precious plants. In borders, put the plants that can take being stepped on in front. What are some dog-friendly plants? Mint is a good one. This plant is nearly indestructible and greets each assault with a wave of cool mint smell. Some lilies are tough enough to be stomped or sat on, as well, and your gardening center may have suggestions for others that are dependable growers in your region.
Dogs don't know a wisteria from a weed, and they never will. That's why it's up to you not to leave them unattended around plants you want left alone. When you leave for work, limit your dog's space for his safety and to protect your plants. Most of a dog's time alone is spent sleeping anyway, so he doesn't need to have the entire run of the house and yard. Outings -- for jogging, walking, fetch or swimming -- should be done with your supervision.
If your dog is allowed in your yard under your supervision only, the chance of his digging or chewing is just about nil -- you can stop him before the damage is done. And you can enjoy your beautiful yard together.
I know at my home, we do.
'Clicker' training works with the dog
Q: The last time we had a dog, we went to a class that required a choke chain. That sweet dog is long gone, and we're starting class with our 6-month-old Queensland heeler. But the local trainer says no choke chain. She teaches with a "clicker." Is that better? -- G.W., via e-mail
A: A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand -- a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it -- click-click!
The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers. What it provides is timing -- it allows a trainer working with a dog who understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward, because in the early stages of training the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants, most usually a tiny treat.
Does this sound familiar? If it rings a bell, that's because the underlying principal of clicker training is scientific and is called "operant conditioning" (Pavlov's drooling dogs and all). But you can be excused if you don't want to know the ins and outs of the science and just want to cut to the chase.
After all, your pet just wants to get to the good part, too.
You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or even bits of kibble). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again, and again, and again. Eventually your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.
When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions -- less than 10 minutes -- every day.
When you're all set up again, sit quietly with your clicker and treats -- and wait. Your dog should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your dog will initially be confused but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait again.
Say you clicked your dog a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your dog will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the principal that keeps you pulling the slot machine handle).
In future sessions you'll move on from the "sit" that your dog knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name, as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" -- training in pieces and putting them together.
One more thing: Never punish your pet for not "getting it right." Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your dog to do.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Med recall news slow to get out
-- The recall of two veterinary drugs made by Teva Animal Health Inc. has not been well-known among either veterinarians or pet owners. According to the Pet Connection's Christie Keith, writing for the SFGate.com Web site, the recalls involve two commonly used injectable veterinary drugs: butorphanol, a fast-acting opioid used to control pain from surgical procedures in dogs and cats, and the anesthetic agent ketamine. Because Teva manufactured these products for a variety of companies and it's not known if all the product has been identified and removed from veterinary practices, it's essential that pet lovers discuss these recalls with their veterinarians before scheduling a pet for any procedure requiring their use. The list of recalled products is on the FDA's Web site.
-- A study published in Current Biology recorded the sounds cats make when trying to get people to do their bidding. Cats use an urgent cry or meowing sound embedded within a purr when they want something, producing a sound humans find difficult to ignore. The combination is more subtle than meowing, which some owners may find annoying enough to put the cat out. Not all cats produce this type of "request purring," but it seems to be more prevalent in cats who have a bonded relationship with a single care-giver.
-- The average daily water intake for a dog is about 3 ounces for every 5 pounds of body weight, so a 25-pound dog would drink about a pint of water per day under average conditions. The amount goes up if the weather is hot, the dog is exercising or both. Depending on whether a pet eats canned or dry food, up to half of a pet's daily water consumption can come from food. Dogs drink a lot of water, not only because they need it for normal bodily functioning, but also to create moist nasal mucous to help them with their keen sense of smell. -- 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" and "The Dr. Oz Show" 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 more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Cancer in pets no longer a death sentence
The word "cancer" used to be pretty much synonymous with "euthanasia" in veterinary medicine.
That has changed a great deal in recent years. Today, there's a wide range of options, everything from hospice care aimed at pain-management to the most aggressive surgical, chemo and radiation therapies. The outcome? Cures for some pets, long-term remissions for others and, for the rest, a good quality of life for a little extra time.
The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better. Know these signs, and have your pet checked out when you observe them:
-- asymmetrical swelling
-- lumps and bumps
-- a wound that doesn't heal
-- unexplained weight loss
-- lameness that can't be attributed to injury
-- an older pet who's not thriving
-- unexplained vomiting or diarrhea
Keeping pets at proper weight and limiting or avoiding a pet's exposure to such risks as secondhand smoke is also recommended. For more information, talk to your pet's veterinarian.
If you haven't ever dealt with cancer in a pet, consider yourself lucky. And then consider donating to research for pet health, such as through the Morris Animal Foundation (www.morrisanimalfoundation.org), Winn Feline (winnfelinehealth.org) or the AKC Canine Health Foundation (www.akcchf.org). A good online reference site is the Pet Cancer Center (petcancerfoundation.org). -- Dr. Marty Becker
BY THE NUMBERS
Keep pets safe from poisons
The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center has listed the top 10 poisons pets get into, based on the number of cases the organization handled last year. APCC staff warn that many pet poisonings are preventable, so look through your home and put dangerous products safely out of reach. Visit www.aspca.org/apcc for listings of most hazardous items in each category.
1. Human medications
3. Common food items
5. Pet medications
7. Household chemicals
8. Household cleaners
Pet birds need perch variety
Chosen properly, a perch is an important tool for helping to keep a pet bird physically and emotionally sound.
When choosing perches, think variety and select an array of textures. Choices you'll find at the bird store or through catalog or online retailers include rope, natural wood and concrete, and each should find a place in your bird's home.
Some of the best perches around won't cost you anything more than the time it takes to trim them from your trees. Limbs from most fruit and nut trees make fine perches, as do those from ash, elm, dogwood and magnolia. Cut the branches to fit the cage, scrub with detergent, rinse well, and let them dry in the sun before putting them in the cage.
A final check is for insect pods -- just break them off and dispose of them in an outside trash can. -- 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.