Want to build a better relationship with your dog? Play with him!
By Kim Campbell Thornton
A dog's play behavior is unmistakable. We all recognize the play bow: forelegs down, rear up in the air, mouth open in a big smile and tail wagging madly. Sometimes the play bow is accompanied by verbal encouragement in the form of a stutter-bark (arr-ruff!) or a noisy growl that's all in fun. If a play bow isn't enough to get you (or another dog) to join in the game, your dog might bring a favorite toy or ball and drop it in front of you, just in case you need more of a hint.
When you toss a ball for your dog, play tug, or participate in a canine sport such as agility, nose work or rally, you're doing a lot more than just having a good time with him. Play provides exercise, reduces stress and improves motor skills, to name just a few of its benefits. Dogs who get plenty of playtime usually don't become frustrated or bored. They are less likely to get in trouble for nuisance chewing, digging and barking, and they tend to have better social skills with both people and other dogs.
Play is a fascinating subject for scientists and dog lovers alike. Even though some play behaviors don't always seem to make sense, we know that it has an important role in learning. Think part social bonding, part practice for behaviors that will be important for survival in adulthood: fighting, hunting and running away.
Puppies start playing almost as soon as they can walk. Whether they are playing bitey-face or chase with another dog, grabbing and shaking a toy to "kill" it or playing fetch with you, puppies are learning skills that will serve them well throughout life, including how to interact with other dogs and people and how to develop a soft mouth so they don't accidentally hurt anyone.
Dogs invent games, too. They might not lie awake at night thinking of how to build a better chew toy, but they learn quickly what actions work best to instigate play. You know, like dragging your underwear out into the living room to get you to chase them.
Teaching tricks is a fun way to play with your dog, at the same time giving him a mental workout. Depending on what your dog likes to do, his natural behaviors and his physical agility, try teaching wave, play dead, sit pretty, spin, speak or roll over.
If your dog already does some of those things naturally, you can use a clicker, treats and praise to reinforce the behavior and put it on cue so he does it on command. That's how I taught my dog Twyla to roll over and play dead and my dog Harper to sit pretty and push a ball with her nose. They already did those things on their own; I just gave the games a name and rewarded the dogs for doing them.
Play is a great training aid. If your dog asks you to play, ask him to perform a sit, down or fun trick first. Many working dogs are rewarded not with treats, but with a fast game of fetch or tug. Play helps them to unwind after an intense search or speedy sled-dog race.
Play helps dogs to become comfortable with being touched and with sudden movements. When we play with our dogs, they associate us with good times. That might be the best thing about play: It helps to strengthen the human-animal bond.
Cat lovers, don't feel left out. Play is just as important and beneficial for felines. Play on!
How to stop a
Q: My cat loves to suck on my wool sweaters, and it's ruining them. Not to mention it can't be good for her. Why does she do this, and how can I get her to stop? -- via email
A: This condition, unimaginatively called wool-sucking, isn't all that unusual in cats, although Siamese and other Oriental breeds seem to be especially fond of doing it. The behavior is a misdirected attempt at nursing that may occur in cats who were weaned too early or who are responding to stress in their lives. In the same way you might suck on your hair or bite your fingernails when you're nervous or distracted, your cat sucks on wool.
The easiest way to stop her is to keep your sweaters where she can't get to them. If your cat only sucks on your sweaters at certain times, see if you can figure out what's triggering the behavior so you can change it if possible.
If you do catch her sucking on one (or any other wool or acrylic item), distract her with an unusual sound. When she looks up from what she's doing, remove the item and focus her attention on something else, such as a treat, being groomed or getting a favorite toy. Reward her with praise and a treat every time you see her sucking on a toy or some other acceptable item. This may help her to kick the habit.
Some experts believe that adding a little fiber to the cat's diet may help. It can't hurt to add a couple of teaspoons of plain canned pumpkin (no sugar or spices) to her meals. That has the bonus of also helping to reduce hairballs.
Be concerned if your cat is actually ingesting wool, because this can cause an intestinal obstruction. See your veterinarian if this is the case; your cat may need a prescription for medication to combat depression or anxiety. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Boldly going where
few cats have gone before
-- Aren't they all adventure cats? Well, maybe not, but some cats have made a name for themselves on social media as intrepid explorers. Under the hashtag #AdventureCats, their exploits are chronicled on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as they hike, kayak, sail, canoe, camp, bicycle and paddleboard with their people. Not every cat is cut out to ride in a backpack, walk on a leash or go rock climbing, but if yours has a yen for adventure, protect him with an ID tag and microchip, and teach him to wear a harness and leash and come when called.
-- You might be hopeful that a hairless pet or one with a curly or wiry coat won't cause you to break out in hives, develop red, runny eyes, or go into spasms of sniffling and sneezing, but the truth is that all animals produce allergens, says Dr. Oren P. Schaefer, an allergist at Mass Lung and Allergy in Worcester, Massachusetts. "The impression of a hypoallergenic pet is one that does not produce allergy, and that doesn't exist," he says. "There are some animals that are less allergenic, but they all make the allergen that can cause trouble. It's a matter of how much they make." If you have a pet who sends your allergies into overdrive, some simple steps can help you be less miserable: Have him groomed or bathed frequently (by someone else), put a T-shirt or bodysuit on him to reduce your exposure and don't let him sleep in your bedroom or lick you.
-- The Bedlington terrier is often described as having the eyes of an angel, the look of a lamb and the heart of a lion. His woolly coat, tasseled ears and the topknot on his head were meant to protect this breed, originally created to hunt rats and other vermin, from attacks by his prey. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.
CAPTIONS AND CREDITS
Caption 01: Play engages a pet's cognitive and motor skills. Position: Main Story
Caption 02: The Bedlington terrier is active and playful but usually not as high-energy as some other terrier breeds. Position: Pet Buzz/Item 3