As a former child, I can remember a time when I wanted nothing for Christmas as much as I wanted a puppy. From kindergarten on, my lobbying campaign would start the day after Christmas and continue nonstop through the following holiday season.
Mom and Dad, I'm sorry. You were right: A Christmas puppy is a bad idea.
Today I am proof that a child can be denied a Christmas puppy and still grow up to be a more or less upstanding, moderately well-adjusted human being. Any flaws in my character I blame on them for not giving me a pony. (Just kidding, Mom and Dad. You were right about that, too.)
Despite overwhelming evidence (my brothers are good people, too, and they didn't get a Christmas puppy, either), every year parents give in to the begging of their children. They 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.
OK, fine, but what then?
Puppies are not toys. They are living, breathing (not to mention eating and peeing) 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?
But wait. 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 now are more likely to have money as their motive. Breeders like this are not likely to cut into profits with pesky screening for genetic diseases, nor are they likely to know or 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 in the snow. 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? How will you socialize your young dog? In the summer you have parks; in the winter you have ... nothing.
Dogs who grow up unhouse-trained, unmannered and unsocialized too often never get a chance to grow up much at all. Every fall, I get dozens and dozens of letters from people who are tearing out their hair over their now-adolescent Christmas puppy. Every fall, the shelters see more than their share of these dogs. 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 him off to a great start.
PETS ON THE WEB
This season is prime time for the wholesale dog-breeding industry, which revs up to meet the demand for holiday pets. Activist Kim Townsend has revved up, too, with a Web site designed to educate pet buyers about the cruelties that still exist in the industry. Her Web site (www.nopuppymills.com) is a no-holds-barred look at the problems with commercial puppy breeders, with articles on the history of puppy mills, and why she believes you should not support them. If you've ever found yourself humming "How Much Is That Puppy in the Window?" you need to view this site to find out just how high the cost truly is, to both animals and consumers.
If you walk or run after dark, you're probably aware that it's a good idea to wear some sort of reflective garb so drivers can see you and avoid you. But do you realize your dog needs protection, too? If your dog walks on your left side and you walk with the flow of traffic, you put your pup in harm's way. A driver might see you but not notice your canine companion, especially if he's a dark-coated dog. You might find reflective wear at your local pet-supply store, but the best source of it is probably Glow Dog. The company's reflective garb includes vests, collars, bandanas and more -- for pets and people. Request a free catalog at 1-888-GLOWDOG (1-888-456-9364), or on the Web at www.glowdog.com.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have recently adopted an adorable 3-month-old toy fox terrier whom we have named Tootsie. Our grown kids live out of state, and we have a fairly active social life. We will be gone from home sometimes up to a week, and we will want Tootsie kept in a kennel.
Before we leave town, should we first board her for a day once in a while to get her accustomed to it and assure her she is not being abandoned? -- A.L., Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: Why have her spend time away from you when she doesn't have to? If you've chosen a good kennel, she'll be just fine when the time comes to board her. Some dogs even come to adore their home away from home.
Since you have some time before you have to leave her, make sure you check out prospective kennels carefully. Ask your friends, co-workers and neighbors for recommendations, along with your veterinarian.
When you have a facility in mind, arrange for a look-see on short notice. You should see clean, comfortable and well-maintained facilities. Ask specifically where your dog will be kept and what arrangements will be made for exercise.
You should get a sense that the owners see your dog as an individual and are willing to tailor their service to your dog. Requests for special diets and medications, if necessary, should be cheerfully accommodated. You should also be allowed to leave favorite toys, bedding or even a sock with your scent on it behind to make your pet feel more at home.
A good kennel should require proof of vaccinations from all dogs, including one for canine infectious tracheobronchitis, commonly called kennel cough. You'll need to have your dog vaccinated against this highly infectious disease at least three weeks before a kennel stay, so don't leave it to the last minute. Finally, ask about veterinary care should your dog become ill, and be sure you're satisfied with the answers before leaving your dog.
Q: Can parakeets talk? Mine doesn't seem to be able to. When will he, if ever? -- D.K., via e-mail
A: Parakeets, more accurately known as budgerigars or budgies, are certainly capable of talking, as are many other parrots. A few budgies have become quite good at talking, in fact, developing vocabularies of 100 words or more. That said, your bird may never utter a word. The only guaranteed way to have a talking bird is to bring one home who's already talking.
You can try to teach your bird to talk by repeating words clearly, or even by using tapes or computer programs that do so. You can nurture communication further by using the words in their proper context and by setting up an association your bird can grasp.
For example, every time your bird lowers his head for a scratch, ask him, "Wanna scratch?" and then scratch him. When you give him food or toys, call them by name out loud. Play naming games with him. Say "grape" and then tell him "Good bird!" for taking it from you, and repeat the exercise.
You may have an easier time of teaching your bird to talk if yours is a one-bird household. Two birds may be more interested in talking their own language with each other than in figuring out yours. Some experts also suggest not attempting to teach your bird to whistle, at least not until he has picked up speech, since whistling birds seem to show a reluctance to use words.
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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