Ladies and gentlemen, cast off your tired old prejudices! It's time to quit picking on poodles.
Long maligned as an effeminate dandy, the poodle has been the butt of jokes for generations, probably ever since the first person put a fancy haircut on what had been a hardworking hunting dog. But the soul of the poodle is still there, under everything that's ever been done to that hair.
Oh, and there has been a lot done! The curly coat of the poodle has been cut in every imaginable way, dyed in every possible color, and (less commonly) even been left alone to work its way into floor-length cords that make the dog look like a French Rastafarian. And as if all that humiliation weren't enough, those who keep poodles seem to share a higher-than-average desire to dress up their pups in all kinds of getups, from faux leopard-skin jackets and pearl collars to leather biker jackets with leashes to match.
But looks alone shouldn't define a dog, and that's surely true with the poodle. I got a letter recently from someone who wanted me to recommend a breed for her family. She wanted something relatively clean and low-shedding, smart, playful and easy to train. And then she wrote this: "My husband will go with anything except a poodle."
I ask you, how fair is that? And how sensible, when a poodle fits that family's requirements perfectly? Instead of crossing the poodle off the list, I suggested the reader consider what a poodle is really like. Anyone who'd do so will find a lot to appreciate.
The poodle is a smart dog, one of the smartest by any measure you care to use. Poodles learn quickly and love to show off what they know. They make novice trainers look expert and expert trainers look brilliant. And they make fools out of the poor owners who don't realize just how smart a dog they have.
The poodle is a friendly dog. Poodles have an innate sense of cheerful superiority and a firm belief that everyone should be entitled to the pleasure of their company. They are the consummate companion.
The poodle is a hardworking dog. Some poodle fanciers are trying to restore the breed to its working heritage. Poodles excel in all manner of canine competitions (obedience and agility, naturally), but a few are even showing up in hunting circles. Poodles as sled dogs? That, too, has happened. They love to have a job to do.
But most of all, the poodle is a dog with a great sense of humor, which is important to a breed that has been through all this one has. Poodles will laugh at you, but they are really happier to laugh with you, genial souls that they are. And they even seem able to laugh at themselves.
A few years back, I was at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, standing next to a big poodle who was waiting to go into the ring for Best in Show competition. The poor fellow's fanny had been shaved in a way that no living thing should have to endure, and I'm sure his sperm count fell with every draft. And yet as the dog and I briefly made eye contact, he cracked his mouth in a happy smile, shook his well-coiffed head and winked.
As I stood there in gape-mouthed shock (wondering, did I really see that?), the dog turned and went into the ring with his handler, poodle pride in every high step.
How could you not love a dog like that?
PETS ON THE WEB
Want to learn about poodles who can do more than look pretty? Check out the Versatility in Poodle Web site (www.vipoodle.org). VIP is dedicated to putting the work element back into what had traditionally been a working breed, and the group's members train their dogs to prove that poodles still have what it takes. Be sure to check out the "working poodles" section to see pictures of dogs acting in ways many people think are reserved for Labrador retrievers. For a more general overview of the breed, visit the Poodle Club of America's Web site (www.swdg.com/pca), which offers help finding a reputable breeder or rescue contact.
Litter boxes don't have to come out of a pet-supply store. Depending on your cat or kitten, you might be better off looking in the housewares section of a store like Target or Wal-Mart, or even in the cupboards of your own kitchen.
Tiny kittens sometimes have difficulty scaling the sides of a litter box made for cats. For these babies, try using a sheet-cake pan that you're ready to retire permanently from baking. The low sides make it easy for kittens to use.
For cats who throw litter while vigorously covering their mess or urinate over the sides of a traditional cat box, look in the housewares section for square plastic storage bins (such as for sweaters) with high sides. You may have to cut down one side to make an entry, if your cat seems to believe the leap into the box is more than he wants to manage.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We are moving to the other side of the country. I will drive our car, which will be pulling a trailer, and my wife will fly with our two children. Would our cat be better off traveling with me in the car, or with my wife and kids on the plane? -- E.R., via e-mail
A: In general, I'd choose the plane, assuming the airline you've decided on is one that accepts small, crated animals as carry-on baggage. (Some airlines won't take animals at all, not even in the cargo holds.)
Airlines require that the pet carrier you choose fit under the seat, which means the largest cats and all but the smallest dogs are going to be too large to be allowed in the passenger compartment. Soft-sided carriers such as the Sherpa are designed to provide comfort for your pet and flexibility for you. Unlike hard plastic, Sherpa carriers have a little give when it comes to tucking in that spare inch or two around your pet.
Check with the airline for details and to reserve your pet's space. The company may limit the number of animals in the passenger compartment on any given flight.
Depending on the age of your children, your wife may have her hands too full to be worrying about your cat as well. In that case, you'll have to take your pet with you in the car. I'd still recommend a carrier. But for a long car trip, your pet will probably be more comfortable in a hard-sided variety, in the next size above those labeled for cats. When you're buying the carrier, pick up some disposable litter boxes, too. These small, plastic-coated containers are easy to use on the road, and can be popped -- soiled contents and all -- into a plastic bag for easy disposal.
Whichever means of transporting your cat you choose, be sure the animal has a collar and ID tag, and a nonslip harness and leash. A scared cat can seem liquid in her ability to escape. A harness and leash will keep your pet from going far, and an ID tag will help you recover your cat back if she slips away.
Thank you for taking your cat with you. I have never understood why anyone would choose to leave a pet behind, but a great many do. In fact, "moving" is one of the top reasons why pets end up in shelters.
Q: We bought our daughter a rabbit for her 10th birthday, and she's being very good about taking good care of Sunny. She had read conflicting information on whether her pet needs hay, or if a diet of pellets will be fine. Which is it? -- S.H., via e-mail
A: The rough fiber found in hay is essential to keeping the digestive system of rabbits working properly. Fresh, clean hay (such as timothy or oat) should always be kept available for your daughter's new pet.
Pellets, hay and water should form the base of the diet, but offering the animal a variety on top of the basics is important as well. Fresh, leafy green vegetables and an occasional piece of fruit would also be appreciated. Mustard, kale or turnip greens are especially good, as are carrot tops and the leaves that surround broccoli or cauliflower heads.
Your daughter would learn from and enjoy a membership in the nonprofit House Rabbit Society, which offers an excellent quarterly newsletter to its members. For more information, visit the group's Web site at www.rabbit.org, or send information about your daughter, along with a check for $18 ($25 Canadian or international), to: House Rabbit Society, 148 Broadway, Richmond, CA 94804.
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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