Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Cocklebur Conundrum

Or “Why Fuzzy Dogs Don’t Grow in the South”

As we get to know our new area, I’m coming to understand why dog breeds native to the south have short slick coats.  I know, it’s because of the heat right?  While I’m sure that plays a role, I think the presence of sharp, prickly vegetation is more of a limitation than the heat.  After all, a fuzzy dog can dig a nice deep hole in the shade on a hot day or sack out in the air conditioning but he can’t avoid the constant onslaught of spiny vegetation.  After each walk or potty trip outside, Ben and I practice our new ritual of removing the native vegetation from his feet, ruff and britches.  Cockleburs, sweet gum balls and cat claw briars are the main culprits here. 

Yes, I could shave his coat but as many of you already know, Ben survives based on his charming good looks and his overly flamboyant tail and britches are a big part of his charm.  So several times a day, Ben and I sit down and get to work removing the prickly vegetation from his fluffiness.  On the bright side, Ben has never liked having his feet or nether regions handled but his touchiness is getting better by the day since we have no choice but to do it.

Like many owners, I often avoid working on a problem unless I actually have a compelling reason too.  Up until now, we had relegated grooming to every couple of weeks and I simply make him lie down and stay.  Neither one of us enjoyed the process much but it worked so we didn’t fix it.  However, after three weeks of me “helping” him pull the cockleburs and sweet gum balls out of his feet and coat, he’s starting to make the connection and realize that even though what I am doing is uncomfortable, it makes him feel better in the long run.  He’s realizing that my working on his coat is a good thing and starting to relax, even when things are tangled up tight. 

The cockleburs are a pain to deal with but are actually function as a training tool.  In behavioral circles this is called “negative reinforcement”, something negative (a cocklebur) goes away when Ben does something good (not reacting to my handling his body and tugging at his coat).  Since I have to get the cockleburs out after each trip, we have lots of repetitions each day where something he doesn’t like (handling) is followed by something more pleasant (stupid cockleburs go away).

So if you have a training issue, remember to break it down into several short sessions throughout the day, work on it every day and be consistent.  The more you work on it, the faster your dog’s behavior will improve.  And be glad if you have a short coated dog or live in an area without cockleburs.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Problems with Underground or Invisible Fences

Periodically people ask my opinion on underground or invisible fences.  These are fences that rely on a cable laid in (or on) the ground and an electronic collar to keep a dog within a prescribed area.  When the dog gets too close to the cable, the collar will beep in warning.  If the dog continues, the collar will administer an electrostatic shock.  Generally, the boundary is initially marked with flags and the dog is gradually introduced to the fence.  Many people love their invisible fences but I don’t.  In fact, I don’t consider them to be a fence at all. 

Invisible fences:
  • Don’t protect your dog from people or other animals coming into the yard and harming him.  If something poses a threat, your dog does not have an option to try to run away.

  • Can cause or increase aggression and anxiety because the dog may associate the discomfort of the beep and/or correction with the people or dogs he sees passing by at the time.  If your usually cheerful, people loving dog is consistently corrected with a beep (a threat that he may be shocked) each time he trots towards the neighbors walking down the road, he may change his mind about the neighbors.

  • Can cause fearful dogs be uncomfortable in their own yard.  Some dogs may be scared enough that they just won’t go out in the yard period; others may not be able to relax enough to go to the bathroom or simply enjoy the space.  Some dogs are noise sensitive and just the warning beep of the collar will make them nervous.  What’s the point of having a yard if your dog isn’t happy and comfortable there?

  • Will not prevent your dog from breaking out if the stimuli is strong enough.  I have known many dogs that will happily run through a functioning invisible fence – they have learned that once they are through the shock will go away.  Once they get out, most dogs will not cross the barrier again to get back inside.  After they have learned that going through is an option, many dogs will break out over and over again. 

  • Will fail when the battery gets low or the wire is damaged.  Many dogs learn that when the beep fails, the shock does too and they will be out and gone before you realize the battery is low.  If anything breaks the cable, your dog may be able to escape before you realize the fence is broken.   

Finally, that “harmless beep” really isn’t harmless.  To you, it’s a warning that your dog is getting too close to the boundary.  For him, it is a threat that he may be shocked.  Some studies have indicated that dogs may have a similar psychological response to the beep as to the actual shock itself and no wonder – the beep means the shock may be coming next.  Even for dogs who only ever get shocked once, the beep itself can be very aversive. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cat Scratch Fever

Cats scratch, a lot, and they seem to be very good at finding places to scratch that we don’t appreciate.  Like on my blue arm chair.  Or the leg of the newly refinished dining table.  When my cats transitioned from being indoor/outdoor cats with a cat door to strictly indoor cats, scratching became an issue for me.  Prior to this, they did most of their scratching outside.  If a cat scratched inside, I would hiss at them and they would stop.  Once they were permanent indoor cats, the scratching got worse and, while I could stop them when I was home, they would scratch like mad when I was gone.  It took a multi-pronged approach to getting the scratching under control. 

Here is a list of things that you can do to help redirect scratching to acceptable places:

  • Provide multiple scratching opportunities so you can figure what your cat likes. 
Many commercial cat towers aren’t structurally sturdy enough for cats to really enjoy scratching on them so if your cat ignores his, don’t give up.  Cats have personal preferences for the texture, softness, and surface of their scratching place.  Some cats have a preference for vertical versus horizontal surfaces.  Some cats like corrugated cardboard scratchers while others prefer twine covered or fabric covered options.  Look at the surface your cat chooses to scratch on and try to replicate it if possible.  I like to provide several options at all times – some horizontal, some vertical and ideally of different textures. 

My cats are most consistent about scratching on corrugated cardboard scratch pads.  They seem to prefer the texture of regular corrugated cardboard scratch pads to the Emery Cat pads.  Make sure the pad is large enough that your cat anchors it securely when he sits on it to scratch.  You can find corrugated scratch pads that hang from a door knob if your cat prefers a vertical arrangement and there are stable slanted options available too.

Lots of cats are very happy with low-tech, homemade solutions too.  If you have someone handy in the household, cut a thick sturdy branch (choose a branch that is at least several inches wider than your cat) and wedge it securely in a corner of the basement or utility room (if that is somewhere your cat is comfortable).  Or get really creative, attach it to a sturdy base and figure out how to work it into your d├ęcor!  (Good luck on that one.) 

My new discovery is that my cats *love* to scratch a rolled up area rug.  If you have an old one (or a cheap one but an old cheap one would be best) roll it up so the bottom is facing out and either lay it on the floor or brace it in a corner of the cat room for scratching.  The rug my cats just inherited after our move should last for years. 

  • Make the right locations fun. 
My cats love catnip so I put a little catnip on their scratching spots each day when I feed them.  This encourages them to roll, play and scratch in that particular area.  I try to sift the catnip into the corrugated cardboard pads a little bit so they really work to get it out. 

If your cat doesn’t really like catnip, try the Cosmic Catnip brand.  My guys are pretty unimpressed by some of the other brands but really love Cosmic Catnip.  If you have multiple cats, make sure you provide multiple scratchers/catnip locations as some cats will get rowdy and play rough or beat up on each other when given catnip. 

If you are really ambitious, you could reward your cat for scratching in the right spots with treats.  You could even break out a clicker and click-treat for interaction with the scratching pad. 

If you have dogs, put the appropriate scratching opportunities in a room separate from the dogs.  Lots of dogs like to “help” correct cats when they are scratching and you don’t want your dog to deter your cat from scratching in the right place. 

  • Make the wrong locations not fun. 
Anything that changes the texture of the surface will help.  Double sided tape or covering a horizontal surface with saran wrap or tin foil can help deter scratching.  Active corrections like squirting your cat with a spray bottle filled with water or tossing a penny can near him may help deter inappropriate scratching.  (A penny can is an empty soda can that you put a couple of coins in and tape the opening shut.  When you toss it in his direction – not right at him! – it will make a noise that will startle him.)  However, these options will only work when you are home so you will probably need to prevent him from having physical access to this spot when you aren’t home to supervise during the training period. 

  • Trim your cat’s toenails. 
This doesn’t end the problem but it reduces scratching and prevents them from doing much damage if they choose something inappropriate to scratch on.  I just trim front toenails and do it once every week or two (add it to your list of Saturday morning chores).  I sit on the couch with a cat tucked under one arm.  The back of the couch prevents them from being able to back out of my hold.  Then I trim their toenails with normal human fingernail trimmers.