The intimate pet owner: surefire ways to get closer to your pet

The intimate pet owner: surefire ways to get closer to your petJust as few parents would admit that they have a poor relationship with their children, most people think that their relationship with their pets is good, even exemplary. To tell the truth, I thought so too until I stopped to take a look. I saw my pets were paying the price of my hectic schedule by receiving quick pats on their heads, rushed walks, and broken promises of evening playtimes. Once I realized the problem, I set about trying to find ways to deepen the bond I shared with my pets. Building closeness with pets, I found, depends largely on structure, discipline, loving and attentive maintenance, ritualized play, and knock-your-paws-off treats that reinforce good behavior and express continuing love.

Forget about democracy. Dogs are naturally possessive, territorial, and rigid followers of hierarchies. Cats are like dictators that follow their own set of rules. Natural opportunists, pets will take advantage whenever they can, so try to be a natural, loving leader rather than a dominating, stern boss. Pets need to know the rules, what is allowed and what isn't. The time for food, exercise, play, respecting possessions, and knowing when it is permissible to bark or mark territory--all these things work on the principle of consistency. Pets like to keep life simple.

Keep Them Huggable

Being close to your pet--physically--will help you grow closer emotionally. Grooming can make this a more pleasant experience for both of you. A pet won't last long on a lap or next to his owner in bed if he reeks. And besides the olfactory benefits, regular grooming makes your pet more comfortable and healthier.

Most cats do a good job keeping themselves clean, but even a fastidious kitty may, on occasion, benefit from a little supplemental cleaning. Dogs, however, need to be bathed on a regular basis. To prepare, put a bath mat or towel in the bottom of the tub. Put a ball of steel wool in the drain to catch hair, temporarily plug your pet's ears loosely with cotton, and put a drop of mineral oil in the eyes to protect them from shampoo.

Bring your pet to the grooming site and give him a treat. Feed the pet in the bathtub periodically, especially a few days before bath time. Keep irresistibly tasty treats handy, and give one during the bath to reward acceptance, but never right after shaking or with any attempt to leave the tub.

Douse his body, not his head, with lukewarm water. Keep his head dry until the very last part of the bath. This is important because water dripping off a pet's face and ears triggers shaking. Use a high-quality pet shampoo and conditioner that is pH-balanced for pets, not people, or a therapeutic shampoo recommended by your veterinarian. Work up a good lather on the body and then work down the neck and back.

To prevent your pet from shaking dry and drenching you while lathering, drape a large towel over his back while you work on the rest of the body. Conditioners make grooming easier both this time and next. Be sure to rinse well; soap residue can cause skin irritation. Blot the pet with a terry towel to remove moisture, or use a hair dryer, pointing the nozzle at a section of wet hair as you brush.

Most pets love to be brushed, especially if introduced to it early in life. Because pets' coats differ so much, what you use for a shorthaired animal won't work very well on a longhaired one. Remember that cats have sensitive skin, so they need a softer brush than dogs do.

Kissable Breath

Don't forget that dental hygiene is important for pets, too. A broken tooth is a bacterial superhighway leading directly to the bloodstream. Not only can doggie and kitty breath be greatly reduced or even eliminated with frequent brushing and regular professional care; brushing your pet's teeth can add two years to its life.

I started by rubbing my dogs' faces, then spent time gently lifting up their lips and touching their teeth with my fingers. Then I progressed to rubbing the toothbrush on the sides of their faces and touching their toothbrushes, dipped in tuna juice, on the sides of the teeth. Human toothpaste can cause stomach upsets, so choose a toothpaste designed for pets--they come poultry- and beef-flavored--or skip the paste and just gently brush. A soft brush is recommended. Bristled finger cots are good for smaller pets.

Day by day, my dogs became used to the slow, circular motions of the toothbrush waltzing across their teeth. After a few weeks, instead of fighting my attempts to brush their teeth, they were fighting each other to be first in line. A similar approach may be used with cats. Ideally, you'll brush your pet's teeth every day, but if you do it three or four times a week, your veterinarian will give you a gold star and your pet will purr or wag its tail in appreciation. (Honestly, I admit I haven't got up enough guts to try to brush the teeth of our cats. Take my advice: start when they're kittens.)

Power of Massage

Don't underestimate the therapeutic powers of a purposeful touch. Pet massages build intimacy and trust. They feel good to give and to get, allow us to learn every curve and bump on our pets' bodies, and help us spot abnormalities that should be checked by a veterinarian.

Set aside 5 or 10 minutes every day or so when both of you are calm and free from distractions. Tell your pet "sweet nothings" in a soothing tone. Apply gentle pressure with your curved hand, with long, flowing strokes from head to rump. Use the pads of your thumbs to apply gentle pressure and massage specific points around the eyes, ears, skull, and spine. Allow your fingertips to glide, press, tickle, knead, and move all over your pet's body. Pay particular attention to the areas your pet enjoys the most. Feel for areas of muscle tension or where the skin feels warmer. Concentrate on those areas.

During the massage, feel for lumps and scabs; look for fleas or ticks. Most important, tune into your pet's response and learn her feedback signs. If your pet melts into your arms, purrs, pushes up against your hands, becomes a limp rag of relaxation, or rolls around you in utter delight, you'll know you are making the love connection in a big way. If your pet starts to resist, wiggle, flee, or tries to do something else, stop.

I got a tip on pleasing cats from a flight attendant who talked about making toast for her pets. "Toast?" I asked incredulously. She explained that, for each cat, she had a color-coded towel that she placed in the clothes dryer for three to five minutes. The cats would come running when they heard the timer ding as she called, "Toast is ready!" She placed the towels on the couch, letting the cats find "their" towels and then rhythmically stroked the length of their bodies.

Play with a Purpose

Playing with your pets is as important to the bond as feeding a premium food and offering fresh water are to good health. Despite the adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks--and refresh his memory on doggie manners in a fun, engaging way. If it's done right, your dog will see training sessions as playtime.

Let's say you have an 80-pound dog that insists on bowling you over with enthusiasm each time you come home from a hectic workday. Protect your body, and your nylons, by training your clog to become your household's official door greeter. Have him sit automatically whenever someone enters through the front door. Teach him by giving him small treats and plenty or, praise each time he sits when you ask him. Only reward his achievements; ignore his mistakes. In time, your dog will learn of the delicious pay off awaiting him if he sits pretty instead of rushing the door like a rhino.

Another fun game is scavenger hunt. Save a portion of your dog's dinner and sharpen his hunting skills. Teach your dog to "find the treat" each night before his meal. Most dogs love to be assigned jobs. Begin this game by first teaching your dog to sit and stay on cue. Then "hide" a treat in plain sight. After your dog waits for a few seconds, say, "Find the treat," and praise him as he gobbles up this found treasure. As your dog gets the hang of this game, start putting treats in less visible places, such as behind a dining-room chair, under the coffee table, or on the top stair. Remember how many and where you hid the treats to keep score on how well your dog performed.

Cat Trick Training 101

When it comes to mastering tricks or commands, dogs don't have a monopoly. Yes, some cats like to learn, will ham it up, and perhaps, secretly, even enjoy pleasing us. The key to cat trick training is to be consistent, caring, and patient. Keep training sessions short and fun so that your cat doesn't look at them as must-do chores. In the process, you will hone your cat's social skills, exercise his mind, bolster the level of trust between you, and encourage your cat to want to seek you out and spend time with you. Here are two classic dog tricks that you can teach your talented tabby.