Drop-kick dogs. Yap-yaps. Lap sharks. Dust mops. Fur balls. Mutants. Darlene Arden has heard all the nasty terms used to describe the tiniest of canines, the toys, and doesn't understand the problem so many people have with them.
"They're the Rodney Dangerfield of the dog world," she says. "They don't get much respect. People say about toy dogs, 'Why don't you get a REAL dog?' They ARE real dogs, believe me."
If anyone can argue the case for these little wonders, it's Arden. A lifelong fancier of small dogs and an award-winning writer on animals for nearly two decades, she has put her heart into a thoroughly researched and entertaining new book "The Irrepressible Toy Dog" ($17.95; Howell Book House/Macmillan General Reference). It's a must-read for anyone who lives with a small dog or is thinking of doing so.
The latter group is getting bigger, says Arden, another in a seemingly endless string of cultural phenomena associated with the aging of the baby boomers.
"Toy dogs are the American Kennel Club's fastest-growing group," said Arden, "and it's not that hard to see why. We have an urbanized society, an aging society. Toy dogs are easier to travel with and easier to exercise. It's easier to take a 5- or 20-pound dog to the veterinarian."
Despite all the advantages, people still have problems with these breeds. Arden says the problem is that few owners realize small dogs need training and structure just as large dogs do. Because the dogs are small, it's easy to consider their behavior problems as annoyances that can be lived with, however grudgingly.
"These are very smart breeds," said Arden. "They're up in your face, in your lap, and they learn to read you very quickly. They can be tiny terrorists, because they learn they can get what they want by being pushy. They look so cute and innocent, you never realize you're being suckered."
The top behavior problems in small dogs is house-training, mostly because it's easy to be inconsistent when working on the problem. Like the dogs themselves, it's not that big a mess to cope with. "People think toys can't be housebroken," said Arden. "I disagree. While it's true that little dogs find it more comfortable to eliminate in the house than to go outside -- especially since they're sensitive to the cold -- they can be trained.
"You have to be consistent, and that's usually the problem. Owners are generally not as concerned with the housebreaking lapses from a toy breed as they would be if they had an Irish Wolfhound."
It's worth the effort to train even the smallest dog, notes the author, because these are the longest-lived breeds -- 12 to 15 years as an average, with some reaching the age of 20. "Train them gently," said Arden, "and they'll respond very well."
But will those who make fun of small dogs ever come around? Arden says she has been surprised how people who never liked little dogs become thoroughly besotted with them once they own one. She likes to tell the story of one man, 6-foot-4 and plenty tough, who loves the Yorkie he and his wife have every bit as much as if the dog were a "guy breed," such as a Labrador retriever or a Rottweiler.
"He likes to say, 'It takes a big man to walk a little dog,'" she said, laughing.
Pets on the Web: A good place to start researching the toy breeds is the American Kennel Club's Web site (www.akc.org). The AKC has an area devoted to each of its seven breed groups (sporting, hound, working, terrier, nonsporting, herding and toy) with information and pictures of each breed within the group. The toy-group page notes that although toy breeds can be "tough as nails ... it's still easier to control a 10-pound dog than it is one 10 times that size." The AKC site also has links to Web sites of national breed clubs as well as information on how to choose a breeder or find a rescue group; you can also order book and pamphlets online, as well as a nifty jigsaw puzzle. This site has always been good and keeps getting better.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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