Heather, the youngest of my three dogs, is "show quality." I am coming to realize this means not so much that she is free of faults that would disqualify her in the dog-show ring, but rather that she lives with someone foolish enough to think dragging her to dog shows a couple of weekends a month is a fabulous idea.
Dog shows are a curious business. Although I have been to hundreds of them (along with cat, bird and even rabbit shows), and have many friends who compete, Heather is the first of my dogs I've ever shown. Her breeding is impeccable, her personality sparkling -- and her tail carried a little high for her breed. On such small distinctions show careers are made -- or not.
Still, it's a minor fault, that tail, so the weekends now find me at fairgrounds throughout the region with hundreds of other people, their dogs and their dreams.
What a bunch of crazies dog-show people are! We drive for hours to spend five minutes in the ring. We sometimes collect ribbons (which we don't care about) and points toward a championship (which we do care about). We know all the hotels that take dogs, and how best to pack our minivans with crates, grooming tables and all the other tools of the game. We drink weak (or burned) coffee and eat stale doughnuts, both overpriced and usually sold by sweet-faced 4H-ers, and we celebrate or console ourselves by pulling out our credit cards at the vendors who tempt us at every show.
This fall, young Heather has picked up two points toward her championship (she needs 15). Meanwhile, I have picked up more canine-related merchandise than I ever realized I "needed" -- dog beds, new leashes, figurines, treats, toys, and even one thing for me: a folding chair, because there's never any place to sit at these places.
For the good of my bank account, I am grateful that Heather, a flat-coated retriever, is of a breed rare enough that most of the breed-specific gear -- "I love my Boxer" T-shirts, beagle wind chimes and so on -- isn't available. That alone has saved me a hundred dollars, at least. Which is, coincidentally, enough to afford another show weekend.
Mind you, I am a little fish in these waters. People who have done this longer and far more seriously than I spend thousands of dollars competing for those points and for even higher honors for the already established champions, such as a Best of Breed or Best in Show win. Some of their motor homes crowd the parking lot, while others belong to the really big guns of the sport, the professional handlers. We're all in this game together, the unknowns like me showing the dog who spends her nights on my bed and the professionals who handle for others, traveling the country every weekend with dogs who see as much of the road as a long-haul trucker.
There's skill, intrigue, politics and even cheating at dog shows, to be sure, but there are also wonderful people united by love and respect for dogs and a sincere desire to preserve and improve the dozens of dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club or other show-governing body.
I'm not really sure why I like showing. The winning is nice, I suppose, but we haven't won enough to really know. For me, I think it's about being with dogs, and the people who love them, and nowhere will you find more of both than at a dog show.
PETS ON THE WEB
Dogs aren't the only animals with organized fanciers, of course. For proof, check out the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association's Web site (www.afrma.org). The group supports the breeding and showing of rats and mice, and works to educate the public on the proper care of these charming little pets.
You'll find articles as well as links to mice and rat sites around the world. If you thought pet rats and mice only came in white, with short hair and a long tail, you're in for a big surprise. Check out the link to the article on varieties: Curly coated and tailless types exist, along with colors such as blue, champagne, chocolate and lilac, and markings patterns described by such lovely terms as Berkshire, Dalmatian and Irish.
Reader Elizabeth, who likes to keep her two golden retrievers fashionably attired in neck bandannas, checks in with a money-saving tip: Use cloth napkins instead. She points out that large cloth napkins come in all kinds of colors and patterns, are washable, and cost up to $10 less than the bandannas you'll find in a pet-supply store.
For really big dogs, she adds, sew two napkins together for a better fit. "Right now Chase and Reef have matching fall napkins on, a fall-tone cotton big plaid with leaves woven into the weave. Target, two for $2.99!" she writes. "I have to admit, my 'kids' really look good in their cool neckwear."
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I recently lost my cat to cancer and have been considering getting either a Siamese or Maine coon. I have explored information on the Web about each one, but naturally all the Siamese (cat) people think their cats are best, and the Maine coon people think their cats are best. I need some objective information about each breed.
My main concern is temperament. Which one is more "doglike," or affectionate and social? What are the downsides to each breed? -- M.L., via the Internet
A: The Siamese and Maine coon are two of the most popular breeds of pedigreed cats, but they couldn't be more different. In fact, they each represent two of the major "types" of pedigreed cats, the so-called "Orientals" known for their long, slender bodies and chatty, busybody attitudes, and the non-Orientals known for a more substantial body type and a less in-your-face temperament. They are also at different ends of the coat spectrum, with the Siamese sporting short, dense smooth fur and the Maine Coon a thick, long coat developed to keep New England winters at bay.
"Best," as you've found out, is highly subjective and impossible to answer. Which breed will make a better companion for you depends on what you want in your pet. The Siamese is active, agile and interested in everything that goes on around him, while the Maine coon is a more passive observer of life. Both breeds are affectionate, but neither is tops in the lap-cat category: The Siamese is too active, and the Maine coon prefers (as its fanciers say) to be near you, not on you. Both are affectionate and social.
When the term "doglike" is used in reference to pedigreed cats, though, the breed most associated with it is neither of the breeds you mention. It's the Abyssinian, thought to be one of the smartest and most trainable breeds.
Like the Siamese, the Aby is sleek, active and chatty. The Aby and Siamese have another thing in common -- both come in longhaired varieties. The Somali is the longhaired version of the Aby, and the Balinese and Javanese are longhaired versions of the Siamese. So if you're looking for Siameselike temperament with longer fur (although not nearly as much as the Maine coon's lovely coat), you might look into these breeds.
I'd recommend visiting some cat shows and making some follow-up phone calls to breeders. To ensure good health and temperament, stick with reputable breeders who screen for congenital problems and socialize kittens in their homes. Also check out the best cat site on the Internet: Cat Fanciers, at www.fanciers.com.
Q: How can I keep my dog from chewing on my expensive shoes? -- S.L., Roseville, Calif.
A: Keep them in the closet with the door closed. Animals have no sense of cost. Your best shoes are the same as your most worn sneakers to your pet. Shoes are always a favorite because they smell like you and are often made of leather or other material with a nice "mouth feel."
If you let your dog chew on the shoes you don't care about, you can't get angry when he chews on those you do. Keep all shoes out of reach, make sure your pet has plenty of chew toys, and praise him for using them.
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 Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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