Madison Square Garden in New York City is a pretty big place, and it is packed during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. I was there for the recent event because it's the ultimate dog fix, because I was covering it, and because I wanted to meet up with some of my best friends.
I knew the last task would be the hardest because I had never met them, had only the faintest clue what they looked like, and had no knowledge what they sounded like. How could this be? Friends I'd never met? Easy: We were part of the big community of pet lovers on the Internet.
I belong to a couple of mailing lists, the online equivalent of a discussion group, and I frequent a few online message boards. Over the years you get a feel for the people, and you start to form friendships with those with whom you share some commonalities -- same kind of pet, same kind of attitude toward pets.
In recent years I've met a few such people in person. One couple in particular are now among my very best friends, even though they're 3,000 miles away. I spend a week or two in their home every fall, and I know their kids (two), dogs (four), cats (six) and bird (one) almost as well as I know my own family. Heck, they (BEGIN ITALICS)are(END ITALICS) my family. The same is true of a couple of dog lovers who live much closer to me, a mere four-hour drive away. We were once just words on a computer screen. Now they too are family.
Still, it's one thing to visit someone's home -- you can guess it's them when they answer the door -- and quite another to find someone in a crowd as vast as the one at this dog show. A couple of people found me the first day of the show; I found the rest the second. I never would have spotted the retriever gang I was hoping to find had not one of them been wearing a T-shirt with a likeness of her dog on it -- the same rare breed I have.
"Is that a flat-coated retriever?" I ventured. "Are you Gina?" she said. The answer, in both cases, was "yes." You'd have thought we were a couple of spies talking in secret code -- "The owl hoots at midnight." All that was missing was a secret handshake.
Instead, there were hugs all around and plenty of pictures. We imposed on some jaded New Yorker to take our group picture in front of the wall of show-dog pictures. The woman was amazingly patient, snapping a single picture with at least a half-dozen different cameras. Everyone wanted to remember the moment.
This group of purely electronic acquaintances, mostly golden retriever owners, had decided to come to the show to meet. They weren't people with show dogs, for the most part -- just people brought together by the love of their dogs.
I later caught up with the flat-coat group, in the area where the dogs are displayed when they're not in the ring. Again, it felt like home. One woman I've "known" for about four years now (but never really met until the second day of the dog show) knew me well enough to know what I needed most. "Do you want a dog fix?" she asked. I spent the next few minutes snuggling with one of hers, which made being away from mine a little easier.
The Internet is a mixed blessing, many have argued. For some, it is isolating: Their contact with other people never goes beyond the electronic level. For others, it's dangerous: They fall deeper and deeper into destructive obsessions. But for others -- and I'm certainly one of the fortunate -- the Internet has been a way to connect with people you'd never have met otherwise, people who really ought to be in your life.
That's what I was thinking when the nice New Yorker told us all to smile for the camera. I put my arm around a fellow animal lover and was happy as a golden retriever to be with my friends.
New York City was one of the first to put in a pooper-scooper law, and the penalty for ignoring it will cost you dearly: $100 if you're caught. There are a lot of dogs in the city -- all sizes, shapes and mixes imaginable -- but not a lot of dog mess. In fact, I didn't see any during my stay. And that's pretty amazing considering that the few blocks around Madison Square Garden during the Westminster show are teaming with 2,600 of the nation's top show dogs -- a high concentration, even for population-dense New York. There was a whole lot of scooping going on, with the simplest of devices in use: the plastic bag. Forget all the fancy scoops you might see in the catalogs. The pros use a simple sandwich bag for small dogs, and any manner of larger ones for dogs as large as Great Danes. It's easy, it's neat, it's done ... just like that. There's no excuse not to scoop, even if your town won't fine you for leaving a mess behind.
PETS ON THE WEB
A must-see stop for dog lovers in New York is the William Secord Gallery, offering the loveliest of dog paintings at prices out of the range of most of us. Secord used to be the curator of the Dog Museum of America, and when that organization moved to St. Louis, he opened a gallery. There's always a stunning show during Westminster, and this year's was no exception, with the work of 19th-century painter Sir Edwin Landseer on display. You don't have to come to Manhattan to see the collections, though. The gallery has put it all on the Web at www.dogpainting.com. Just make sure you're sitting down before you click on the prices.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm very frustrated with my parrot, Charley. He's an Amazon (yellow naped) and a real brat. I scold him all the time and even yell at him sometimes, but he's very poorly mannered. What can I do? -- G.R., via e-mail
A: Have you ever had a teacher or boss who never had anything nice to say about anything you did but came down hard on you if you made a mistake? Did you find that person likable? Do you enjoy being around that person, or were you stressed-out waiting for the boom to fall?
We're not sure why so many people are so quick to criticize and so slow to praise, but we do know this all-too-human tendency can have a negative effect on your bird. Instead of waiting to catch your bird doing something wrong, look for opportunities to praise your pet. A few sweet words, a favorite treat or a neck scratch -- your bird deserves these signs of respect for being the kind of companion you want him to be, however briefly he's managing to pull it off.
Is he playing quietly with a toy? Staying on his play gym? Show him you approve! Spend time with your bird every day, working on good behaviors, playing with toys together, and just plain hanging out. Talk to your bird, snuggle your bird, if he likes that sort of thing (not all do), and take time to figure out your bird's favorite places to be scratched.
If the only time you deal with your bird is to (occasionally) clean up the cage, change the food and water, and yell at him for screaming, you're not holding up your end of the deal. Ideally, your pet bird should be a member of your family. Make him one, and always keep an eye out for opportunities to let your bird know he's appreciated. He'll appreciate you in return!
You might also benefit from a call to an avian behaviorist, who can help show you how to train your bird. An avian veterinarian should be able to refer you to someone.
Q: I watched the Westminster dog show, and I was glad that poodle didn't win. That haircut was ridiculous! Why is that necessary for showing? I feel sorry for the dog. -- P.H., via e-mail
A: You may not have liked that big white poodle, but this Westminster finalist came into the show as the top dog in the sport. As for the haircuts, these dogs are used to it, and after their show careers are over they're usually cut down into something easier to live with. The poodle's show cut has a sensible origin: It was supposed to help the dog while swimming. Hair was removed from where it was thought to be in the way, and was left where it was thought to keep the dog warm -- over the chest and neck, over the ankles and hips.
Things have gotten pretty ridiculous since, I agree, but don't look for any changes soon. Even a good dog couldn't win without that haircut. It's interesting to note that there has been a surge of interest in using the larger poodles for their original purpose -- as smart, responsive and hardworking retrievers. The poodles who work in the field are usually cut short -- not shaved, just trimmed down. They swim just fine, thank you very much.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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