This year, I'm giving you ample warning: If you're thinking of a Christmas puppy, just stop it, right now. No matter how much your children want one, the holidays are just about the worst time possible for most families to get a dog.
Christmas puppies are often a parent's headache by February, when the animals are still not house-trained, the kids are tired of the responsibilities involved in caring for a pet, and it's still too cold and dark outside for dog-training after work and school. Too often, these animals are a shelter's problem by summer, when their cuteness is long gone and their untrained boisterousness has lost any semblance of charm.
Despite the warnings of those in the know, every year parents give in to the begging of their children and pop for a puppy. It's too easy to imagine the Christmas puppy as the most precious Norman Rockwell snapshots ever, the puppy in a box, the puppy with a ribbon, the puppy giving such a perfect kiss to the oh-so-happy face of a child.
The attraction is understandable: Who doesn't love a puppy, and who wouldn't want to delight a child? But there are reasons why shelters, rescue groups and responsible breeders are uniform in their advice to think twice about a Christmas puppy.
Puppies are not toys. They are living, breathing (not to mention eating and urinating) beings who need a lot of attention. Who has time for a pup during the holidays, that stressful season of socializing and shopping? With a houseful of guests and a holiday dinner to prepare, who will make sure the puppy isn't being mauled by overly enthusiastic children and guests? Who has time to get house-training started right?
Let's back up a little and look at another Christmas reality. Many reputable breeders and shelters flat-out won't cooperate with your Christmas puppy lust. The sellers who have puppies for Christmas delivery are often motivated by money. Such breeders are not likely to cut into profits with pesky screening for genetic diseases, nor are they likely to care about the importance of socialization. These attitudes may cost you in the long run, both in dollars and in heartbreak.
But say you find the right puppy anyway. It's still a bad time to get a puppy. Doubt me? Try house-training a puppy when it's cold and stormy. Are you really so keen on the idea that you want to be out on winter nights, shivering while a puppy carefully contemplates whether he'd rather sniff or pee?
What about the rest of the training? The first few months of a dog's life are crucial: Bad habits are far easier to prevent than they are to break later. Will you really feel like training your pup when the holidays are over, the days are short and the kids are back in school? And how will you socialize your young dog?
Dogs who grow up unhouse-trained, unmannered and unsocialized too often never get a chance to grow up much at all. From summer to fall, I get dozens and dozens of letters from people who are tearing out their hair over their now-adolescent Christmas puppy. Some people work with the dogs, but many just dump them. Sad for the families; tragic for the dogs.
Dogs can be great for children, and children can be great with dogs. But Christmas is not the best time to launch such a promising relationship. Somebody has to be the grown-up here, and if you're the parent, it should be you. Wait until late spring or early summer to find the perfect pup and get your pet off to a great start.
PETS ON THE WEB
This is the time of year when poinsettias start showing up, and people start worrying about how safe they are around pets. The good news: You can enjoy this seasonal foliage without concern -- or without much concern, anyway. Poinsettias may cause minor stomach irritation if enough of the plant is ingested.
Curious about what's poisonous and what's not? Check out the directory of plants put out by the University of California, Davis (http://wellness.ucdavis.edu/safety_info/poison_prevention/take_care_with_plants/toxicity_of_plants.html). You'll find an exhaustive listing broken up alphabetically, and referenced not only by how dangerous a plant is, but also by the kind of damage it does.
Do you have a pet who likes to rummage in the bathroom wastebaskets or kitchen trash bin? This behavior is very rewarding to the pet who indulges in it, and so it's a very hard habit to break. You can try to booby-trap the cans by buying motion-detector noisemakers, or mats that give animal trespassers a small electric shock.
An easier, kinder and more reliable way to solve the problem is to simply remove the temptation. For some pets, a lidded trash bin will solve the problem. For others, you'll need to put the bin behind the door of a cabinet or pantry. Sometimes changing your behavior is the most efficient way to change your pet's behavior -- and the strategy is easier on you both.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I had dogs growing up, but haven't had one in my adult life -- just haven't had the time. My wife and I are in our 40s, and we have a young daughter, age 7. She really wants a dog. Our house has a very small yard, and we're not home much. Although I would prefer a big dog, my wife argues that a small dog would suit us better. Can you recommend a breed? -- T.S., via e-mail
A: If you're not home much, you might rethink getting a dog at all. Although many dogs -- if not most -- do fine with owners who are home after work and on weekends, if you're the kind of family that spends a lot of weekends gone and a lot of nights out, you'd be well-advised to wait to get a dog until your lifestyle suits one.
Dogs are pack animals, and your family is their pack. They don't do well spending most of their lives alone. Those animals who have such lives are miserable and prone to behavior problems such as digging, barking, chewing -- anything to fill those lonely hours.
If you're willing to commit to the time and energy it takes to properly care for a dog, then I can think of a handful of breeds that may fit the bill.
First on my list would probably be the pug. The breed is the largest of the toy dogs, weighing up to 20 pounds or so, and is a sturdy, easygoing companion with a face anyone's mother could love. Two breeds that are a little bigger but similar in looks and temperament: Boston terrier and French bulldog.
If you're looking for a small dog with a big-dog attitude, think Pembroke Welsh corgi. These short-legged dogs don't need much space, but like all herding breeds they like to stay busy and mentally engaged.
Another busybody with a big-dog attitude is the border terrier, considered by the experts to be one of the less pugnacious of the tough-minded terrier breeds.
Don't rule out a mixed breed, either. Although it's hard to predict the size of a shelter puppy -- one friend of mine adopted a puppy who was predicted to be the size of a fox terrier, but ended up at 85 pounds -- you can reliably find a properly sized dog by adopting mixed breeds as adults.
For your situation, skipping the puppy stage has a real benefit. If you take your time and work with shelter and rescue groups, you should be able to come up with a dog with maturity and some training who'll fit right into your family without all the time-consuming fuss demanded by a puppy.
Q: Please solve an argument my roommate and I are having. She has a cat, and I'd rather she not. But I can tolerate the beast, except for the litterbox smell. My roommate says cleaning the litterbox once a week is enough; I say it's not. Who's right? -- S.C., via e-mail
A: Ideally the box should be scooped every time the cat uses it, or a couple times a day at least. Realistically, daily attention is probably fine.
Aside from the issue of smell, tell your roommate that by neglecting this chore she's flirting with a bigger problem: a cat who skips the litterbox. Cats don't like dirty bathrooms any more than people do, and your roommate's pet may start looking for a cleaner place to go if this stinky situation isn't remedied.
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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