Q I board my horse at a barn in Medford, and the owner has a few Jack Russell terriers. One of them had a litter and my daughter begged me for one, so I took it home for her, as our beloved cocker spaniel just died after we had her for 15 years. Now, six months later, I just cannot seem to train this dog to do anything. She seems very stubborn and does not listen to me at all. I cannot get her to even look at me and pay attention -- her head is always pointing and looking in every direction except at me. My cocker would practically read my mind. I cannot get over the difference in these two dogs and was hoping you could tell me what is wrong here. -- Robin Andrews, Port Jefferson
A Of course, I have not seen your dog in person, so I really cannot know if there is a problem. What I can tell you is that comparing your current puppy with the spaniel that you had for many years is not fair to the puppy. I bet that 15 years ago your spaniel drove you just as crazy as this Jack Russell is doing now; you just may not remember it. There is no such thing as a stubborn dog or a spiteful dog or a dog that cannot be trained. What is different about dogs are the traits that humans bred into them many generations ago to help us with specific tasks.
Spaniels were bred to be gun dogs -- to follow a hunter and wait for the command to retrieve and bring back any birds the hunter shot. So, spaniels were bred to look to humans for direction and then wait for the command. The terrier was bred to live in a barn or a farm and to look for, catch and kill any vermin invading the place.
Farmers did not have the time to tell the terriers what to do -- they bred them to think on their own and act without the direction of a human. Now this sounds like a pretty smart dog, if you ask me. Just think about how many Jack Russell terriers have been in movies and on TV shows and followed direction perfectly.
This breed of dog has to think that whatever behavior you want it to do is an actual job, and, like any job, it needs a paycheck. For a terrier, the paycheck for the job you want it to do is some kind of food reward. By always using a food reward, you can get the dog to focus on you. When it does, then it is just a simple matter for it to realize it needs to do a behavior -- such as coming when called or sitting in front of you -- to get that paycheck for the job you expect it to perform.
This kind of training is called positive reinforcement and can work for any breed of dog, and, frankly, for any species of animal. It is all about communicating desires to another species in a manner that can be understood clearly.
Q We had a sun conure for the past 10 years, and he just died in an accident. This bird loved my wife but hated me; however, this was fine with me. We assume it was a male, as it seemed to love women and hate men. Since I am not home very much, we want to be sure that our next bird is a male as well. Is there any way we can be sure the next sun conure we get is a male before we buy it? -- Bruce Sanders, Garden City
A The idea that a male bird will automatically like human females and that a female bird will only like human males is false. There is no way a bird can have any idea of the sex of a human -- we are just too far apart on the evolutionary scale.
This is not to say that a bird can't prefer the company of men to women or vice versa -- however, the choice is made by the bird's interpretation of the actions or voice or appearance of the human and has no bearing on whether the human in question has estrogen or testosterone.
Should you want to find out the sex of a bird, ask the pet shop owner to send a few feathers to a lab. You will be charged for the test. If the bird is the sex you’re looking for, then everybody’s happy; if not, pay the pet store owner for another test until you get the results you want. If you already have a bird and want to find out the sex, just pluck a couple of feathers from its breast and mail them to a laboratory such as Research Associates Laboratory (vetdna.com). It can extract the DNA from the feathers and, for a fee, tell you within a few days what sex the bird is.
Birds think of us as individuals and base their opinions on their experiences with us alone. Should you want to find out the sex of your bird, all you need to do is pluck out a couple of feathers from the breast of the bird and mail them to a laboratory such as Research Associates Laboratory (vetdna.com). It can extract the DNA from the feathers and, for a fee, tell you within a few days what sex the bird is.
Q There is a woodpecker that has taken up pounding on a strip of metal on the side of my house twice a day for the past two weeks. He cannot be looking for insects, as he is pounding on the metal alone. What can I do? He starts at 4 in the morning and I cannot chase him away. -- Roger Williams, Cedarhurst
A This is a male woodpecker's way of singing. He is pounding on the metal as the noise makes him sound a lot bigger and stronger than the other male woodpeckers in your neighborhood, so he gets the best nesting areas and the prettiest mate. The best thing to do -- if you can reach the spot where he pounding with a ladder -- is to cover the area with some cloth secured by duct tape. After the breeding season is over, you can take it down. Another idea that sometimes works is to tape a few children's pinwheel toys that have some long ribbons tied to the vanes to the spot on the house. As the wind blows, the pinwheel ribbons flapping in the wind will chase the bird off, and hopefully he will find a different spot to perform his acoustics.