Steve Pica wants pets and their human companions to get along, and the way to go about that, he says, is by understanding, not punishing. Every Thursday evening, he offers advice on his call-in talk radio talk show, Dogs Gone Wild. We caught up with him recently.
How did you become a pet counselor?
"I started by volunteering at SPCA in Largo," Pica says. "Walking dogs, taking them out every once in a while. They don't get out much in shelter environment. Then I started thinking . . . why not spend time with them in the kennel, too?" Pica started spending more time in the shelter. A few years later Pica started volunteering on SPCA's behavior helpline, to help pets stay out of shelters in the first place.
Tell us about your radio show.
The show started in late March, and is on 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays on WTAN-AM 1340 and streamed live on tantalk1340.com. "The show doesn't take the place of an obedience class," Pica says. "It fills in the gap. It won't give you all the answers." The show focuses on behavioral problems, like scratching furniture and disobedience. To treat aggressive behavior, Pica recommends working with a trainer.
Any tips for choosing a class or private trainer?
Because pet counseling and training is an unlicensed profession, anyone can put up a sign and call himself a pet trainer, Pica says. That means a lot of bad advice out there. Pica suggests asking potential trainers about training they have attended and checking credentials. His top advice? "Ask the trainer what kind of punishment they use. . . . It's kind of like a trick question. A good answer would be 'time-out.' I'd shy away from anyone who mentions physical punishment." When choosing a class, Pica says to go observe it first. Do pets — and people — look happy? Proper training is very important, he says. He points to a study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Association that concluded dogs whose owners said they received helpful behavior advice had a 94 percent lower risk of being surrendered to a shelter.
What is the funniest question someone asked?
"A father called in. He had a pit bull mix that was really interested in his son's hamsters," Pica says. "He wanted to know if he should introduce them. . . . I told him getting predator and prey together wasn't a good idea. Please don't do it!"
What is the most common problem?
"Lots of what they (pets) do is natural to them, but for us it's inappropriate," Pica says. "To them, it's all natural: scratching, digging, barking." A solution: Give them new outlets for their hard-wired behavior. Put scratching posts near furniture, for example. Pica also suggests using rewards for positive reinforcement. "It's all about redirecting behavior and outwitting your dog." There's no need to use force, unless the pet is in danger, or endangering someone, he says.
To tune in to 'Dogs Gone Wild'
When: 5-6 p.m. Thursdays on WTAN-AM 1340 and live on tantalk1340.com.
Questions? Call (727) 441-3000; dogsgone wildradio.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pica's favorite online resources
aspca.org: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
openpaw.org: Open Paw.