Often the best way to fix bad habits in pets is to work not on their behavior, but on our own.
Dog trainers know this all too well, which is why some of them jokingly describe what they do as "training dog owners." Watch any obedience class and you'll see the trainer spends most of the time instructing handlers, not dogs.
I do it myself, often without realizing it, and not just to those who ask for advice. Friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers have all heard it:
"Don't whine at the dog. He won't respect you. Lower your voice."
"Give the command once and only once, then correct and praise, lots of praise."
"Loosen your grip on the leash. A dog that can't breathe can't think."
Then there are those automatic responses to common pet peeves, such as how to keep an animal out of whatever he shouldn't be into -- trash cans, wastebaskets and bathrooms, most often.
My advice is so obvious that it takes some pet lovers by surprise: Get cans with lids that fit tightly, put wastebaskets out of reach and close the bathroom door.
Although some pet problems require considerably more effort to fix, often the best solution is also the simplest one.
Never is simple advice more applicable than around the holidays, when hazards abound for the pet whose owner isn't looking out for him. Here's a cheat sheet to keep your pet healthy and happy this month:
*Feeding problems. How can you resist slipping your pet a little something special -- a big piece of turkey skin, a handful of chips with dip, a few slices of salami? Resist, or your pet could be spending his holiday at the emergency veterinary clinic.
Foods too rich, too fatty or too spicy -- or anything your pet's not accustomed to -- can trigger a bout of intestinal upset. For some animals, the treat can trigger a serious inflammation of the pancreas or intestine, and that means a trip to the vet's.
What to avoid? Anything that you wouldn't eat, your pet should avoid, too. While a little bit of meat -- beef or poultry -- won't hurt and would be appreciated, steer clear of the fatty parts and the poultry skin, which also contains fat. If ham is on your holiday table, keep it from your pet's dish. Pork can harbor a virus that causes a disease with symptoms similar to rabies -- and just as deadly to your pet.
No one's saying your pet shouldn't enjoy a holiday meal too, but limiting the kind and amount of special food will ensure that it is a treat -- not a trouble.
*Foreign-body ingestion. Poultry bones may seem like the perfect gift for the pet who has everything, but do him a favor and save them for the soup. (Broth is a wonderful treat over regular kibble.) Even the largest turkey bones are prone to splinter, sending shards through the animal's intestines. Should one pierce the lining, the result is deadly peritonitis.
While poultry bones are out, some beef bones can be safely substituted. Knuckle bones stand up to vigorous gnawing, providing your pet with hours of messy fun. Check at your market's meat counter for these inexpensive -- and sometimes free -- treats.
Some dogs prefer to eat bones rather than just chew on them, and if you've got one of those, keep an eye out to make sure the bones aren't causing internal problems. A pulverized bone can solidify like concrete in an animal's lower intestine, causing constipation and, occasionally, blockage that must be removed by a veterinarian.
The Christmas tree is full of hazards for dogs and cats. Tinsel can be an appealing target for play, but if ingested, it can twist up the intestines. Ornaments, too, are deadly in the mouths -- and stomachs -- of pets, and even the water at the base of the tree contains secretions that can at the very least cause a stomachache. Light strings are no good for chewing, and the whole tree can come down on the cat climbing in its branches. Some dogs may even be inclined to break the rules of house-training on a fresh-cut tree -- why else, they reason, would anyone bring a tree into the house?
The best way to handle the situation is by making the tree off-limits to your pets unless you're there to watch and keep them out of trouble.
*Poisonings. Holiday plants such as poinsettia and mistletoe may look intriguing to your pet, but they're also poisonous, as are the bulbs of the amaryllis. And before you share your holiday candy with your pet, be aware that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and may be deadly to the little dog that gets a good-sized piece.
Again, the best cure is prevention: Keep all dangerous plants out of the reach of your pets, and keep the candy dish available to people only.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o At Home, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md., 21278.