House pets' wild thoughts

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Cosmo, an Italian greyhound, had been a person so long he had to be taught how to be a dog.

Cosmo, who lives with Shirley Zielinski of Cape Girardeau, came within a whisker's breadth of losing his home. His former owners had made the common mistake of loving him too much and spoiling him by treating him like a little person. Cosmo didn't know who was the "alpha dog" in that household.

Without a clearly defined role, he became confused, anxious and aggressive. Cosmo couldn't get along with Zielinski's other dogs, and he bit her children and grandchildren.

"My heart was breaking," Zielinski said she told her veterinarian. "I can't keep a dog who is going to bite my family."

The veterinarian referred Zielinski to Tara Lang, owner of Critter Communications LLC in Cape Girardeau and a veterinary technician who specializes in behavior problems. Originally from Sikeston, Lang holds a degree in agriculture from Murray State University and works by e-mail with a California animal behaviorist. Lang is not a veterinarian, nor is she a trainer. She works with both and has had some medical training, which is helpful in finding out if a pet is behaving badly because it doesn't feel well.

After ruling out illness, Lang goes to work finding out why a dog -- or a cat, a bird, even a rabbit or ferret -- has become aggressive or anxious.

It worked for Cosmo. In the first four hours she spent with Cosmo and Zielinski, Lang learned that his former owners had instilled some of his bad behavior by treating him like a little human.

"The first thing she said was she didn't want the dog sleeping in my bed," Zielinski said. "He always had before. He did not know any other way. She said it made him feel like he did not know his place."

Zielinski said she learned from Lang that dogs have a hierarchy. One dog in a household is a dominant dog, and the others fall in line. They don't care where they are in the hierarchy, but they need to know their place. Cosmo did not learn his place because in his previous home he had not been treated like a dog.

The first thing he had to learn was how to sit on command. That establishes that Zielinski is the dominant one in that relationship, and Cosmo learned where he belonged. When Lang visited Cosmo a week after Zielinski had worked with him, he was a changed dog.

"The dog has done a total turnaround," Zielinski said. "It's a miracle."

Lang said she recommends dogs spend some time with trainers in a class learning basic commands.

"It's good for dogs to socialize," she said. "It's an important part of their mental well-being. Otherwise they're most likely to be afraid of other dogs, children or elderly people."

Dogs especially need to learn the command "sit."

"Everything depends on knowing 'sit,'" Lang said. "It gets their behavior under control."

Lang said the best way to work with a dog is to ignore its bad behavior, interrupt the bad behavior in a way not associated with the owner, but reward the dog when it does something good so that the good behavior is reinforced. The dog then learns what the owner expects and that he will be rewarded.

"Training a dog is not punishment," Lang said. "You don't have to pick up a rolled-up newspaper."

Cat psychology

Working with cats is a little more complicated, she said, but it can be done. Dogs care about what their humans want from them. Cats don't, but they are motivated by food.

So many pets might not be relinquished to animal shelters or put to sleep if their owners would invest a little time learning how to modify their behavior, Lang said.

"We euthanize more behavior problems than medical problems," she said.

Dogs who don't behave in the house are put outside, where they develop other bad habits like digging and barking. Those new bad habits will result in the dog being given to another home or taken to an animal shelter where, more often than not, it will be euthanized. Cats also are often put outside, where they are susceptible to attacks by other animals or being hit by cars.

Lang said she believes she has a better option.

"My goal is to have well-mannered house pets who can live with their owners for the life of the pet."

Lang and her husband, Kerry, who is originally from Cape Girardeau, returned home after living in Atlanta for seven years to be near family. They have a 3-year-old daughter. Lang grew up with animals, and currently has a 10-year-old Great Pyrenees named Karlie who has to live in the basement because Lang's husband is allergic to her. Karlie's well-behaved gracious manner in response to that arrangement is testimony to Lang's ability to understand and modify her dog's behavior. Lang also has two birds and a skink. She and her husband also breed thoroughbred racing horses.

Lang said she works with pets of all kinds and sizes, such as "pocket pets" like hamsters and gerbils, which need stimulation from toys to keep them occupied. She said birds often have problems with aggression, which are manifested by screaming or biting.

Laurel Bush of Gordonville called on Lang to help her with Maddie, a 10-month-old parrot who was not adapting well to her new home. She said she met Lang at a puppy behavior class in Sikeston and wanted her advice on how to ease the parrot into her menagerie of turtles, cats, rabbits and a ferret. Because Maddie had bonded closely with the breeder where Bush bought her, she easily felt threatened and would bite. Bush said Lang advised her to teach Maddie a few basic bird commands to get her mind off her bad behavior, then praise her when she did well to reinforce the good behavior and to bond with Bush.

"She's now climbing around her cage and playing little games," Bush said. "She talks to me and plays with the cats."

Bush said Lang also helped her with a rabbit, Annabelle, who didn't like the new rabbit hutch she was moved into.

Lang showed Bush ways to make Annabelle, a pet rabbit, relax by stroking and massaging her. That, along with encouraging the rabbit to enjoy her toys in her new home, helped Bush's bunny to accept the new hutch.

"She loves her new home now," Bush said. "Last night she kicked the ferret out of it."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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