Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dog training: The blooper reels

Yesterday, I posted some film of Liam performing his "back up" trick with extreme accuracy. Watch that film and you may think that I am the best trainer in the history of pug training. In the interest of honesty, today I will post the misfires. They're funny, yes, but they also demonstrate some common training problems.
When you have treats that are impossibly tasty, your dog may try to do the trick long before you give the command. Liam performs the trick too early, and then covers up by performing another trick instead.
Sometimes I put the treat on the floor and make him back up from the treat on the floor. In this video, he tries to gobble up the treat before I'm ready and then totally forgets what we're doing.
And here, well, he totally forgets what we're doing and performs only one part of the trick. (And I have bad camera work.)

I suppose I must retire by training crown for now and get back to work.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Teaching a dog to back up

Over the last week, I've been trying to teach Liam to back up on command. It's a useful command, especially at mealtime when he likes to crowd the bowl before you've put the food down. With just two words, I can keep him away from the bowl long enough to let me get away before he starts eating.

The command is pretty simple. I place him in a sit position, and then I ask him to "back up." He has to take about 3 steps and then return to a seated position. To teach Liam this trick, I:
  1. Placed him in a sit position while I kept a hot dog slice in my hand. 
  2. Said "back up" as I moved the hot dog slice over his head. 
  3. Clicked with the clicker and gave him the hot dog when he scooted back to keep tracking the hot dog as it moved. 
This is a form of training called "shaping." The idea is to reward the dogs for doing things that are similar to the final command you want to see. You give them tons of feedback as they learn, so training sessions are fun and easy. And as they do those shaping steps consistently, you make the task harder. 

He's at about 85 percent accuracy right now, but he sometimes gets confused and tries to go into a "down" position instead. I think my hand signals aren't quite clear enough. (You can see him glancing at my hand gesture in this video.)

He also dashes to the camera at the beginning of the video, as he sees me digging the hot dog slices out of the dish. And he has to think about the command a little, hence the delay. (As an aside, you don't hear a clicker on this video, basically because I don't have enough hands to hold a clicker, a hot dog and a camera all at the same time. I subbed in "Good job" instead.)

I am probably shaping Liam's commands too quickly. I need to go back to keeping the treat by his head consistently. Only when he's doing the command 100 percent right can I make it harder.

The next trick we'll try is something I'm calling "shimmy," which is essentially a full-body shakeout on command. This might be harder to teach, but I have high hopes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How to keep cats off kitchen counters

Eamon the cat climbing up on the kitchen counter
For most of his life, Eamon had impeccable kitchen manners. He would look for food on the floor, of course, but he wouldn't dare get up on the counter tops or go searching for food on the dining room table.

All of these manners have recently gone out the window, and I think I know why.

In all of my previous homes, Eamon was given free range of the kitchen. I had no way to close the kitchen off, in most cases, so he could go in there whenever he pleased. Since I am a tidy person who cleans up almost immediately after a meal, there was rarely anything to find on the counter tops. If he hopped up on the counters, he rarely found anything worth snacking on so he likely stopped looking.

In my current home, the kitchen is closed off most of the time. When the kitchen is open, it's because we're in there making food. When he hops on the counter now, he is likely to find something to eat. So his hopping on the counter is rewarding, and that's why he continues to do it.

Clever boy.

The solution, it seems, is to let him into the kitchen much more frequently and to booby-trap the counters so he encounters unpleasant things. There are tons of ways to do that. I could:
  1. Fill pop cans with pennies or marbles, and line them up a few inches from the edge of the counter. That way, when Eamon jumps up, it causes a loud noise he probably won't like. 
  2. Put something spiky on his favorite counter, like a plastic carpet runner. 
  3. Sprinkle the counters with orange peels or Ivory soap, so the smells force him away. 
  4. Buy a device that squirts water or hisses when it's triggered by motion. 
Cats are quick learners, so it's unlikely I'd need to leave these things up all the time. If he had one or two bad experiences, it would probably be enough to keep him off the counters for good.

But I need to do something. Every time he hits the counter jackpot, it will be a little harder to train the behavior away. I'd better get cracking!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kitten season returns to Portland

Tiny kitten sleeping in a large dog bed
A previous foster kitten, affectionately known as Katie TriMet.
Run a quick search at the local shelters and you'll quickly discover that kitten season has returned. Every year it seems that cats go into heat all at the same time and deliver gobs and gobs of kittens, all at the same time. This means that shelters are overcrowded with babies, and some of the older cats get passed by when potential adopters come calling.

There's an obvious solution to this, of course: Neuter your pets.

Having a litter of kittens isn't a rite of passage for a cat, and it won't make a female cat more loving or parental. It will just add to the severe cat overpopulation problem we face all around the world.

This advice doesn't end with the cats you own.

If you have stray cats in your neighborhood that have kittens, year after year, contact the Feral Cat Coalition and ask about their trap-neuter-release programs that can stop that cycle cold. In July, they'll do those surgeries for free.

And if you're looking for a pet, now's the time to head to the shelters and spend time with the older cats. These cats have just as much love to give as a kitten, and they are less likely to tear up your furniture or keep you up at night with their antics. They'll be mellow companions, ready for a life of luxury.

To see some of these older cats in action, visit the House of Dreams cat shelter. These unwanted cats are overwhelmingly older, and they're still quite playful and loving.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pugs and hot weather: Why the two don't go together

Pugs like Liam need a lot of water in hot weather
Liam having a drink out of his collapsible water dish.
Tomorrow is the first day of summer. Looking outside at our cool, cloudy weather, I am having a bit of difficulty believing that warm weather is on the way. But the forecasters swear we'll hit the 80s tomorrow, so perhaps it's time to prepare.

Especially Liam. 

Pugs and other snub-nosed breeds are prone to overheating. Since their snouts are so short, they can't run air past long, cooling nasal passages. Instead, they pull hot air directly into their bodies, and their temperature climbs incredibly quickly. Dogs don't sweat, so they have few options available to help them get rid of all of this excess heat.

That's why you don't see many pug owners cheerfully greeting the advent of hot weather. When the temperature is in the 70s, we can help our pugs stay outside by providing water and ice chips. But when the temp climbs above 75, we have to stay inside with the air conditioner running. We can't drive our dog to the dog park, for fear that the car trip will be too hot. We can't take an afternoon walk, as panting begins just a block from the house.

So while many people eagerly await the warm weather, I dread it a bit as it means the end of the afternoon walks I take at the end of the workday. Liam is safer, but my exercise routine goes out the window. I suppose everything comes with a sacrifice.

For more information on pugs and heatstroke, click here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Finding the perfect pet sitter: Why it matters and how to do it

Three cats crammed into one cat bed
As you can see, I have a lot of cats. Sometimes, they love each other and they all get along. Sometimes, they fight a bit over resources. I think I took this photo about 30 seconds before Maggie and Lucy got into a bit of a slap-fest over who would be able to sleep in that pink bed with Eamon.

I don't often go on vacation, since I do have so many cats with so many varied needs, but there are times when I feel like getting away and the cats must stay home. When this happens, I look for a cat sitter.

Choosing a cat sitter can be difficult. Ideally, you'd like someone the cat already knows, so the cat won't be freaked out by a stranger entering the home several times per day. Additionally, you want someone who knows a bit about cats, so this sitter will be able to tell when the cat is ill and needs medical attention ... and when the cat is angry because the humans have dared to leave the vicinity (the two things can look very much alike in a pouty cat).

I'm lucky. I have wonderful neighbors who watch my cats when I am away. In return, I watch their cat when they're gone. This makes for a cat-watching circle, so nobody feels cheated. It's a nice thing.

When I do go on vacation, I leave behind detailed instructions about how much food should be delivered in each meal, and where the cats are accustomed to eating. While my neighbors have watched the cats before, it's true, I don't expect them to remember all the small details. I also leave behind phone numbers to call in an emergency, and I prepare a cat carrier in case someone has a problem and has to go to the veterinarian.

And I always deliver thank-you gifts.

All of these steps can help a pet sitter get the job done just a little easier, and that means the cats have a better time overall. And, all of those steps help to ensure that the sitter will take the job again, the next time I have to go somewhere. When it's this easy, why would anyone refuse?

If you're not fortunate enough to have a neighbor you can ask for pet-sitting assistance, this article can help you choose a professional pet sitter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hiking with your dog at the Oregon Coast: Go ahead, it's fun!

Oregon coast hiking trail
Yesterday's hike, near the Oregon coast.

I am an occasional hiker. I love the cool forest air, and the hidden surprises around every corner.

And when I go hiking, I take my dog.

People are often surprised when I say this. Since Liam is a pug, many people think he's not capable of enjoying a brisk hike. In fact, Liam loves a good hike. He scrambles around rocks, smells the pee of dogs that have come before and wags his tail happily as we go. There are a few precautions I take, however, to make sure the trip is safe for him.

Before we go, I make sure his collar is secure and his identification tags are still legible. It's easy for dogs to bolt when spooked, and I want to make sure he can come back to me if he's lost.

I also make sure his toenails are short, so he's unlikely to catch a toe in a tight crack.

I check the weather report, too. If the temperature is above 80 degrees, we don't go hiking that day. With his short snout, Liam can't tolerate hot temperatures and I don't want him to overheat on our hike.

I also make sure he's up-to-date on his flea and tick treatments, so the critters don't eat him alive.

In my pack, I bring along a water bowl and water bottle (like this: Alfie Pet by Petoga Couture - Set of 3 Ros Silicone Pet Expandable/Collapsible Travel Bowl - Size: 1.5 Cups). Liam gets dehydrated, and I am not certain the water we'll encounter is safe for him to drink.

I also bring along plenty of bags for picking up offerings. It drives me crazy to walk a trail lined with dog poop, and I won't contribute to the problem.

 I also bring Benadryl on our hikes. Liam has a minor allergic problem, and I want to be prepared.

As we hike, Liam stays on the leash. Period. Hikes are no places for off-leash dogs. They can bound into sensitive flowerbeds, frighten other hikers and run off. Leashes are simply a must.

When we're done hiking, I check him for ticks.

And then I snuggle him in the back of the car, where he snores happily all the way home.

For more information on the hike we took yesterday, click here. There's a spectacular bridge smack in the middle of this hike that's simply not to be missed.

Disclosure: Some product links in this post are “affiliate links.” If you click on them and make a purchase, I'll get a commission. Rest assured that I only recommend products that I believe provide real value. This disclosure comes in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Should you feed your cat a raw diet?

Eamon the cat eating his raw diet
A confession: I've been slow to adopt the idea of feeding a raw diet. I don't know if I buy the idea that cats simply cannot digest cooked food and they must eat uncooked protein in order to digest it properly. Call me crazy, but cats have been eating cooked food for hundreds of years, and I've seen plenty of cats live into their 20s just fine.

But for Eamon, I gave it a try.

He has kidney problems, and he has recurrent problems with urination, even on a prescription diet. He also has an incredibly fast metabolism, and can't seem to keep weight on. I've had his bloodwork checked, and it's all normal. He simply runs on a lot of fuel.

He's been on Rad Cat for about 2 months now. It's made locally, which I like, and the ingredient list is completely legible and understandable, which I also like.

Eamon scarfs this food down in about 5 minutes flat. He loves it.

His coat has changed from dull and thin to thick and shiny. And we've had no urinary flare-ups. For him, it's working.

I'm not convinced enough to use it on all of my cats. The others seem fine on the food we provide. But I am happy to have found a solution for Eamon. Maybe there is something to this raw diet after all.

For more information on Rad Cat, click here.

Disclosure: I was not compensated in any way for this review. I just like this food, and I wanted to write about it. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

When your yard is overrun with spiders

Spiders on a pipe in an Oregon yard
Last year, I wrote about spiders on this blog. We had many, many extremely large spiders building gigantic nests in front of our doors and windows, and I felt sure that we were having some sort of banner spider year. (Missed it? Read it here.)

It looks like this year will be no better.

Everywhere we turn, we're surrounded by these tiny brown eggs. When you touch them, these eggs explode into small spiders who veer away on their little webs. There must be at least 100 by our back door.

I know that spiders are beneficial in the garden. They kill aphids and ants and mosquitoes. We want them in the garden. We just don't want them in the house. So we're dutifully removing them from the doors with paper and transporting them to the garden.

Over and over.

Every day.

Is there a better way? Not really. Killing the spiders means letting insects run wild in the yard. And all of those bugs will bring in more spiders. The critters we kill make space for new critters. There really is no end.

For more information on spiders in the garden, click here. Once you read, you may decide that you need them. I can't say that it's worked for me, but it might work for you!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Protection for roses: An update on the dog/plant issue

Roses inside of a screen to protect them
Several months ago, I asked my husband to build me some gates for our roses. The roses are planted in the small strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. This is the only place on our property that gets enough sun to sustain roses, and I thought they would do well.

Irresponsible dog owners proved me wrong. Last year, dogs peed all over my roses every day. Some dogs rooted around at the base of the roses, attracted to the fertilizer. Some dogs simply walked on the roses, and broke off leaves and branches. When the plants were dormant, some owners let their dogs get tangled in the roses, and they yanked the leashes to pull them free.

The rose pictured above was subjected to all of these problems. The leash-yanking incident was violent enough that I was sure the plant had been uprooted and would simply die.

I'd had enough at that point, and I asked hubby to make some enclosures for my roses. You can see more about that in this blog post.

I'm happy to say that the rose gate experiment is a success. It's sad that I have to keep my roses in gated communities because people can't be bothered to be responsible with their dogs, but at least the gates are keeping the majority of damage to a minimum.

Dogs will walk up to the gates, and they will even walk around them, but they can't get close enough to the roots of the plant to cause any damage. That means no broken stalks, no torn root balls and no showers of pee. If the dogs want to pee, they can hit the gates. But it's very hard for them to drench the entire plant with urine. They can't get close enough. 

Rose gates work best with rose varieties that are tall. You'll want the plant to peep out over the top of the gates, and some aren't large enough to do that. But, if your plants are subject to abuse, you might give this a try. It worked wonders for me!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why (and how) to set your dog up for success when you're outside

Liam the pug at the end of his leash
I am a big believer in taking your dog on outings. Whether you take your dog to the beach, to the park, or even just to the local hardware store, you're giving your dog a great opportunity to socialize with other people and other dogs.

For extremely excitable dogs like Liam, this is an incredible training opportunity. When we're in a stimulating environment, I can teach him to watch me and focus, rather than barking and running. This is hard training to do at home, when he's already focused on me and there's nothing to distract him.

That said, this is a gentle reminder to all dog lovers out there that taking your dog with you does mean providing adequate supervision. Dogs are curious, and stimulating environments can be overwhelming and bring out the worst in your pet. I see an increase in separation anxiety when we take Liam to the park (as seen in the photo above). Others see an increase in aggression or fearfulness. Make sure to watch your dog's body language. Train where you can, but know when enough is enough and it's time to go home. You're striving for happy body language. A happy dog is less apt to be a troublesome dog on the next outing.

For another perspective on this issue, check out this interesting blog post. Food for thought, for sure.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How often to clean your pug's nose

Liam the pug snuggled in his bed
One a week, I scrub out the fold above Liam's nose with an antifungal cleanser. It's designed to help kill yeast and dry the skin so he can avoid infections.

This all sounds great, but there's one major problem: Liam hates to have his face cleaned. He runs when he hears me getting the cleanser out of the cabinet and he pulls and squirms while I'm trying to clean.

So imagine my dismay to discover that a once-per-week cleaning session simply isn't enough.

Last week, he developed another fledgling infection in the fold above his nose. Luckily, we were able to beat it back with frequent scrubbings. But the fact remains that I'll have to clean his face more frequently if I want to prevent these problems from cropping up every month.

Most experts recommend cleaning a pug's facial folds every day, at least once per day. It may seem like a lot, but when you consider that pugs push their faces into everything, from dirt to food to water dishes, this approach makes a lot of sense. It's unlikely, however, that I'll need to use an antifungal cleanser each day. I can probably get away with blotting up moisture with a soft cloth each day and doing a deeper cleansing once per week.

Pardon me while I go and stock up on dog cookies. I'll need plenty of bribes to make this a semi-pleasant experience for Liam.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What to do when your cats kill birds

Jasper sitting on the front porch after killing a bird
Jasper waits to be thanked.
Yesterday, one of our outdoor cats killed a bird. This was a very small bird (maybe a finch), and it was in remarkably good shape. The cat hadn't eaten the bird or played with it much. The cat just killed it and left it by the back door for us to find.

I know cats are predators, and killing birds is what they're designed to do. I also know that most experts say that cats leave you "gifts" as a sign of respect. It's not something you can train away.

But it still bothers me. And it should, as solutions can be hard to find. 

Putting a bell on the cat can help, but putting a collar on a cat can also be dangerous. Cats can get hung up on collars as they're climbing, and those cats can strangle. If you buy a collar that breaks away with tension, the cats tend to pop the collars off minutes after you put them on.

The only real way to deal with the issue is to keep cats indoors. Birding experts have been recommending this for years and years. I agree fully, but would point out that our feral cat colony simply cannot live indoors. They create unsanitary conditions (to say the least) and are striving to get out 24 hours per day.

I comfort myself with the fact that our feral cats are old. Jasper and Beorn are both older than 12, and Franklin is likely about 8. All of them have been neutered. We will not be adding any more bird-killing animals to the great outdoors in our lifetime. But I do feel bad for the little guy my cats killed yesterday. Burying small animals is not a great way to end the day.

If your cats can stay indoors happily, don't let them out.

Please don't let them out.

And if you have a feral cat colony in your neighborhood, work to spay and neuter them so the population doesn't grow and kill off the birds. The Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon can help.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Working from home with pets: Is it really about pajama time?

Liam, Maggie and I all working together
Like most American workers, I used to spend much of my day in a cubicle. I had just a tiny bit of room to myself, and very often I had to share that space with people who had questions or needed help with something. I thought that working from home would be so much better. I'd have more personal space that no one would invade, and I could move about this entire house when one space proved unstimulating.

And I also thought (as do most people who think about home working) that I might be able to spend most of the day in my pajamas. I would have no meetings to conduct, no coworkers to offend and no commutes to make. Pajama party for me!

As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

For starters, I rarely stray from my desk. A quick look at the photo above will tell you why. When I am sitting in any location that is not my desk, my animals think it's cuddle time and they flock to my lap. If I have my computer on my lap, they'll be content to sit beside me, but will try power grabs to move to the center from time to time. Liam and Maggie are the worst offenders.

If I stay at my desk, the dog will stay by my feet in his bed. He snores, but he doesn't demand attention. Eamon and Maggie drift onto the desk from time to time, but they rarely stay for long visits. I think they're hoping I'll break down and feed them, but they walk away soon enough.

And the pajama thing? That doesn't work, either. Liam still needs to head outside for his walks and potty breaks. And I do need to be dressed for those outings. I may not need to be dressed up, but I still do need to be dressed. 

So, while working at home is certainly superior to working in a cubicle, it isn't quite the relaxing, casual thing I expected. But I will say this: It's superior to office life. Every day, I'm with my animals. And pajamas or no, I wouldn't trade that for anything.