My friend Bruce is a successful business executive, as comfortable in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies as I am at the dog park. He is intensely competitive, highly motivated, and has been known to make miserable the lives of people who are not doing their jobs as he thinks they should be.
He is nobody's idea of a pushover, with one remarkable exception: He is incapable of controlling his dog.
I hear from people like this every day, of course. People whose Rottweilers drag them down the street, as if they were water-skiers following a motorboat, or whose Labradors pay no attention to their owners' entreaties that they not jump up on the guests. I've known huskies who can really haul when faced with an open front door and a split second of opportunity, and shepherds who shine at making fools of their owners.
But these are all big dogs. When Bruce calls me to complain about Margaret, he's talking about a dog who weighs just a tick over 11 pounds -- and who should weigh, I must note, just a tick less.
Margaret was a birthday gift from Bruce to his wife, and the problems likely began the very first day the tiny Maltese puppy came home from her breeder. Most toy breeds are blessed with more brains than seem reasonable for their tiny heads, and Maltese are especially clever. I doubt that it took little Margaret long to realize that the doting couple who hand-fed her freshly broiled pieces of chicken breast were going to be long on spoiling and short on discipline.
Practically every conversation I've had with Bruce since then has included a discussion of the dog's manners, or lack thereof. "She pulls on the leash," he complains. "She barks at guests," he whines.
I used to make sympathetic noises in response to his complaints and offer training tips. And I'd appeal to his own highly developed sense of personal discipline. "Bruce," I'd say in exasperation, "she's a tiny, tiny dog. Don't let her push you around."
No longer do I offer him advice, not only because he never follows it, but also because I've decided he likes Margaret just as she is. She may be a brat at times, but she's sure a cute one. Rule the house she most certainly does, but her reign is a good-natured one. She loves people and is especially adoring of her two special ones.
Such is the appeal of toy dogs. While other breeds were developed with a job in mind -- to herd, to hunt, to protect -- the toys have never had to do anything except love and be loved. And they're so good at it that we happily let them get away with behavior that would make us crazy with a big dog.
In the end, I suppose there's nothing all that wrong with a little brattiness in an 11-pound dog.
Bruce is of the same mind, although he'd likely not admit it. He called the other day from an outdoor cafe, where Margaret was sitting on his lap enjoying the parade of people walking past. "Do you think Margaret will ever learn to walk nicely on a leash?" he asked me, yet again.
I told him I didn't think so. And even from 3,000 miles away, I knew he was smiling indulgently at his sweet little tyrant of a dog.
PETS ON THE WEB
A few weeks ago, a letter-writer took me to task for not advocating seat belts for dogs. Since then, a few readers have recommended the Canine Automotive Restraint System site (www.canineauto.com) as a source of both equipment and information. The attractive and well-designed harness restraints will work with standard seat belts, cargo hooks and anchors for child-safety seats. The company reports that its products are also available as an option on Ford vehicles. Prices range from $22.50 to $32.50, depending on the size of the dog.
Pity the poor poinsettia, vilified as a killer of pets for years. It's time to welcome this lovely holiday greenery into your home again because the stories you have heard aren't true. Poinsettias are safe around your pets. Other holiday plants are more worrisome. Among the deadliest: lilies and mistletoe.
And plants aren't the only poisoning menace you'll find in homes this time of year. Those concoctions added to Christmas-tree water to extend the life of your greenery can be dangerous to a curious pet, too, as can the chocolate that seems to be everywhere during the holidays.
Your best bet is to keep the most dangerous elements out of your holiday home, and set up your tree and other decorations so you can keep pets away when you aren't around to watch them.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I need your opinion on clumping litter. I have a longhaired, Siamese-colored cat. As I watch Kimo groom after using his litter box, I worry that loose litter might ball up in his intestines. My veterinarian says that he has never run into this problem, but I am not certain. The clumping litter does make it easier to maintain the box, but I won't use it if it is harmful to the health of my cat. Your thoughts? -- P.L., via e-mail
A. You're certainly not the first person to be concerned about clumping litter, but this is one thing you can quit worrying about. No scientific evidence exists that this cat-box filler presents any danger to your pet.
The idea that it does traces to an article in a now-defunct cat magazine, in which the author blamed the popular product for the death of a kitten. Warnings have been kicking about the Internet ever since.
To err on the safe side, some veterinarians suggest avoiding clumping litter until a kitten is out of the taste-testing-everything curiosity stage. But even that advice is just a precaution for kittens only, and you don't need to fear any harm if you use clumping litter with adult cats.
If you look at it another way, clumping litter has likely saved the lives of many cats. According to CatWatch, a monthly newsletter put out by the Cornell Feline Health Center, preference polls indicate that cats prefer clumping litter to other varieties. This means that cats who avoid the box if it's filled with another litter type may use a clumping variety without problems. And since a lot of cats who avoid the litter box end up homeless, you could make a case that the introduction of clumping litter has kept more than a few cats in their homes.
Clumping litters are also popular with cat owners, who give clumping litter high marks for ease of use. Drawbacks include tracking problems, because the material that sticks to moisture on cat mess clings just as easily to moisture on cat paws. A mat around the box will help to keep things cleaner. The dustier varieties of these litters can also trigger attacks in asthmatic cats, especially if used with a covered box.
Longhaired cats like yours have another problem with clumping litter: It tends to collect around the genital area and back thighs of the cat. I don't worry so much about your cat's grooming. Cats don't swallow what they pull out of their fur. The bigger problem is that an accumulation of clumped litter can lead to a real mess, and potentially a problem in using the box. It's important to keep an eye on your cat's fur in these areas, and help out your cat when necessary with extra grooming or even by keeping the fur trimmed close in problem spots.
Q: We have used the Kong toys you wrote about for our two American Staffordshire mix pups, a male and female from the same litter. They have different personalities, but one thing they don't differ in is their ability to destroy a Kong. It used to take them a few days to thoroughly reduce a Kong to almost nothing. We had to stop buying Kongs at the rate they were eating them! -- R.F., via e-mail
A: For the vast majority of dogs, Kong toys are indestructible. But there are always going to be those dogs with the jaw strength to chew up anything. AmStaffs, pit-bull terriers and the like are probably at the top of this list, with their superpowered jaws and terrier tenacity, but other dogs likewise take the chewing of "indestructible" toys to be some kind of personal challenge.
My friend Jack reports that his tough-minded Australian cattle dogs will get it into their heads to chew up a Kong now and then. Knowing this, he keeps the receipt and the package, and the company makes good on its offer of a replacement when he takes what's left to the pet store.
I've never had to replace one. The only way Kongs disappear from my household is when we lose them. My retrievers give their Kongs a good chewing workout, but you couldn't tell by looking at even the oldest Kongs in the house. And I have a couple that are probably close to two decades old.
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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