Dog Spotlight: Training

I’m sure a few reading this might wonder, “Your blog is about cats so why are you talking about dogs?” Fair question. One, I love both cats and dogs. (I also think rats, chinchillas, and many other pets are cool too.) Two, it’s important. Three, it ties in with shelters, which is another topic I frequently discuss on Purry Home Companion. So there you go.

January, among other things, is National Train Your Dog Month, which was created and sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). One crucial aspect of responsible pet ownership is ensuring that you teach your pet (whether it is a cat or a dog) house manners. For a cat, it is using a litter box, not to scratch (destructive clawing), and not to bite (bite inhibition), for example. For a dog, manners can include basic commands like “sit” and “stay,” emergency recall, and how to walk properly on a leash. On a walk, your dog should walk right next to you, not in front and not pulling. (Incidentally, January is also Walk Your Pet Month.) Naturally, APDT developed a program called CLASS, or Canine Life and Social Skills, which you can read about on their website (linked above). Another training test is the Canine Good Citizen program through the American Kennel Club. Therapy dogs, for example, have to go through this training, or something similar, in order to be adequately prepared to perform therapy work.

While I volunteer in the cat room at my animal shelter, I am very pleased to know the volunteers that work with the dogs do teach them basic manners and how to walk on a leash nicely. Many dogs are surrendered to shelters because they are not trained and owners find them too energetic or that they do not want to put the effort and time into training their pet. This is most unfair to the dog, who may be adopted more than once before finding the right owner. By teaching the dogs manners, the shelter has increased the chances of their animals being adopted, dramatically shortened the dogs’ stay in the facility, and reduced the likelihood of those animals being returned–a win-win for everyone. The shelter has also had great success in placing dogs with Starmark Academy, and at least two dogs have since graduated to working animals in K-9 units. How exciting is that?

The point I am trying to make here is that it is vitally important to teach your dog manners so that your pet behaves well in private and in public. This is part of being a responsible dog owner. Do not expect to receive a dog (from a shelter or a breeder) already trained. You must put effort into working with and training your dog. Do you have questions, lack questions, or are you running into issues making progress with your pet? You may want to consider enlisting the help of a professional. Yes, training takes time, patience, work, and even a bit of money, but it does pay off in the long run.

Does anyone really want to have an ill-mannered, untrained dog? An out of control animal can pose a danger to you, your loved ones, and to others, and that is a matter of public safety. A dog that has never received any training poses great risks, even if that dog is not aggressive. For example, a large, unrestrained, hyperactive dog bounding across a yard and into the street can run in front of a car, posing a real driving hazard. This same animal can crash into pedestrians on the sidewalk or children playing next door. An uncontrolled dog poses a very real hazard to working service animals and their handlers, who may be injured or traumatized by this experience. A negative experience with another dog can seriously impair a service animal’s ability to work or even compel early retirement. It’s very serious.

As always, demonstrate your love for your pet by being responsible and doing the right thing. By doing so, you’ll have a happy, well-mannered canine companion that can comfortably interact with others in and out of your home. I, for one, enjoy having upstanding canine citizens! How about you?

Adopt a Senior Pet Month

IMG_1841November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month!

Before I start talking about senior pets, it’s important to understand the basics of pet lifespans. Pets age and grow similar to how humans develop over time. They start out as babies (puppy- and kittenhood), go through a youthful period (adolescence), reach adulthood, and continue to their twilight years (senior and geriatric period). Cats, in particular, can live a long time–15 or more years. Here’s how cat life ages break down:

  1. Kitten: Birth to 6 months [human equivalent: 0-10 years]
  2. Junior: 7 months to 2 years [human equivalent: 12-24 years]
  3. Prime: 3-6 years [human equivalent: 28-40 years] 
  4. Mature: 7-10 years [human equivalent: 44-56 years]
  5. Senior: 11-14 years [human equivalent: 60-72 years]
  6. Geriatric: 15 years+ [human equivalent: 76 years for a 15 year old cat to 116 years for a 25 year old cat!]

Charlie is the equivalent of a 24 year old, although I must admit he seems more like a furry toddler. Garrus, being 6, is the mature one of the boys, being the equivalent of a 40 year old in human years. Boudicca is 17, which would make her roughly 84 in human years! 

Dogs’ lifespans are a bit different and depend on the breed and the dog’s size. Large dog breeds tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller dog breeds. For example, a large dog breed, say a 1-year-old Golden Retriever, would be 18 in human years. An 11-year-old Golden Retriever would be 96! A Great Dane or an Irish Wolfhound may only live 8 years. By contrast, a small dog breed like a West Highland White Terrier would be the human equivalent of 12 at 1 year old and 96 at age 16.

In animal shelters, adult pets and especially seniors are considerably more likely to be overlooked and, consequently, take a longer time to find their furever home. I think a lot of this has to do with myths about senior pets and just how “old” a pet is.

As part of my volunteer work at the Pflugerville Animal Shelter, I help out in the cat room and show adoptable animals there, especially during adoption events. Almost every person who comes in to look at a cat asks first, “Do you have any kittens?” (NB: I have nothing against kittens. Kittens are friggin’ adorable and they deserve good homes too.) Please look at adult cats!

A number of people I’ve spoken to in the cat room positively balked at adopting an 8-year-old cat and often wouldn’t even look at a cat over the age of 5. I have had at least one person directly state that they were under the impression that adult animals (cats and dogs alike) would not bond with new owners but only kittens and puppies would because they were more “moldable”. This idea floored me. I had never heard that before and, in my experience, certainly not true.

Whether a pet is 6 months old or 6 years old, a pet can certainly bond with a new owner. Take my two former foster cats, Charlie and Garrus. They are two and six years old, respectively. Charlie had been adopted at least three times, albeit briefly, and Garrus had at least one prior owner. When we first took them home, they were timid, skittish, and prone to hiding. We sat on the floor and waited for them to feel confident and comfortable enough to come out. This patience paid off because they started to show affection toward us and slowly started to bond. (Getting shy animals to build trust and bond can be a challenge.) By contrast, when I adopted Boudicca, I’m fairly sure she had already started to bond with me before we left the ASPCA. (She was about 5 months old at the time and it should not be overlooked that she chose me.)

When I work in the cat room, I often get to love on cats who are so eager to love on anyone and grateful for any attention, whether it is playtime, chin scritches, or being held. Most of them definitely want to engage with humans; the rest may be anxious, afraid, or need more socialization in order to feel comfortable with human company. Socializing and loving on cats are my primary duties as a volunteer. Now that I’ve worked with shy and timid cats, I’m happy to help other cats come out of their shells so they can find a loving home!

There are a number of advantages to adopting a senior pet. Here are a few:

  1. Personality. A senior pet has an established personality and disposition. Older animals tend to be calmer as well. Even-tempered, low-key pets are companions with whom you can relax. They also often make excellent snuggle buddies. Who wouldn’t want that?!
  2. Manners. Older pets know basic manners and household etiquette. That is because they are generally familiar with home environments and some kind of training. Many already have experience living with other animals and children. Kittens and puppies, while adorable, don’t have manners yet because they lack experience. They need to be taught manners and doing that requires a lot of work. 
  3. Size and activity level. An adult or senior pet has achieved their adult size and generally has an established activity level. These are important things to consider when adopting, as a unique pet’s needs (high energy, big size) may impact your lifestyle (will need lots of exercise and space). It is also important to consider whether an energetic or laid-back animal would best suit your lifestyle and if your lifestyle suits that animal. Look at the differences in energy levels between Charlie, Garrus, and Boudicca. Charlie likes to be busy, Garrus enjoys both playing and chilling out, and the highlight of Boudicca’s day is regularly scheduled lap time. 
  4. Trainability. Because senior pets have well-developed personalities, manners, and experience, they are generally easier to train and require less monitoring than kittens or puppies. Young animals frequently get into something they’re not supposed and can’t always distinguish between a safe situation and a dangerous one. An adult pet, by contrast, is more likely to know what “no” means and be less of a troublemaker.
  5. Housebroken. Senior pets don’t have teething issues and are already house-trained. In short, they tend to be less destructive. (A group of kittens is called a destruction for a reason! Kittens can be nuts.) Older pets are generally more in sync with human daytime and nighttime patterns of activity and sleep.
  6. Not problem pets. Senior pets are not necessarily “problem pets” as some tend to think. A senior pet may lose their homes for any number of reasons: novelty of a pet wearing off, allergies, death of an owner, new baby, loss of a job, a move, or a change in work schedule, to name a few. None of these reasons indicate that there was something wrong with the pet. With Charlie and Garrus, their last owners were seniors and in ill health; I believe both went into nursing homes and could not take their cats with them, so they were surrendered.
  7. Health. Senior pets are not necessarily sick and decrepit. Some pets have health challenges their whole lives while others are pretty healthy well into their twilight years. Any health issues a senior pet has may already be diagnosed and receiving treatment. Being fully prepared and knowing what you’re getting when adopting a pet is empowering.
  8. Save a life! Adopting a senior pet saves lives. Seriously. Senior pets are more likely to be put down if they cannot find a home and the shelter faces overcrowding.
  9. Love in action. Adopting a senior pet or a special needs pet can be the ultimate act of generosity and love. They need loving homes just as much as kittens and puppies do!