Heather comes from a family of overachievers. Her littermates are all show champions with field, obedience and agility titles galore. Her mom and dad are both in their breed's hall of fame.
She came to me when she was a year old, and since then she has been queen not of dog shows and field trials, but of couches, beaches and dog parks. The fault for good potential gone bad, if it must be assigned, is all mine.
I used to be a competitor. Every day I'd run home from work, grab a dog and head out to train. I traveled hundreds of miles to work one-on-one with top trainers or to compete in shows or trials. I was serious and dedicated.
We did pretty well, those early dogs and I; we got some titles, won some trophies. But then I decided I'd rather just hang out with the dogs -- take a walk or play a game of fetch, teach them a trick that would make a child laugh, or work on manners that would make it possible for the dogs to be welcomed most anywhere.
We're starting to train for the sport of dog agility, but just because the retrievers consider it more play than work. By and large I decided long ago that I would be content if my well-bred working dogs played for the rest their lives. We didn't need any more titles.
But we went for one more, because it's important. Heather and my other retriever, the big, goofy Benjamin, are now each certified as a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) by the American Kennel Club. It's not much compared to the multiple titles of Heather's siblings, or even the honors earned years ago by the long-retired Andy, a once-keen competitor now pushing 16. But we did it because I like what the program stands for and want to encourage its potential by example.
It's no secret that as a society we have mixed feelings about dogs. Our hearts warm to those dogs who serve as search-and-rescue dogs, or as helpers to those who are blind or use wheelchairs. We can't get enough stories of therapy dogs who bring a smile to the face of an autistic child or an older person with Alzheimer's. But we can't pass laws fast enough in an effort to protect ourselves from other dogs, after such events as the horrifying attack in San Francisco last year by a pair of animals who are the stuff of nightmares.
A friendly, well-mannered dog is a pleasure to keep and an asset to the community. In my neighborhood, a park that was inhabited mostly by drug dealers changed dramatically once dog-lovers started exercising their pets there. (And picking up after them, of course.) Places are always safer when people and well-mannered dogs frequent them.
The Canine Good Citizen is about acknowledging such dogs, for the good of all dogs and those who love them. The program isn't about trophies or precise and rigid obedience. Its 10 tests are meant to identify those dogs who behave with calm, friendly confidence, whether at the veterinarian's, in a crowd or meeting other dogs. They are dogs who know the basics of on-leash obedience, even if they may need gentle encouragement to practice it.
To put it simply, Canine Good Citizens are good dogs.
Heather earned her CGC despite my attack of nerves. Benjamin did her one better, partnering with a pre-teen boy he hadn't known but an hour and still passing easily.
The Canine Good Citizen title isn't going to get either one of them into their breed's hall of fame, but by supporting the program that acknowledges good dogs like mine, I did something to help keep all good dogs welcome in public spaces.
In the long run, I figure, that's more important than a Best in Show at Westminster.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Canine Good Citizen program may be run by the top registry for purebred dogs in the United States, but it's open to every dog, no matter its breeding. For more information on the program, visit the AKC's Web page (www.akc.org). You'll find a link to the Canine Good Citizen program on the lead page.
Now and then I get letters from people who are worried about their young cats. It seems the animal -- always a female -- sometimes rolls around on the floor, crying as if in discomfort. It's not constant, so they haven't taken the animal to the veterinarian. But they're wondering if they should be worried and if the situation is going to get worse.
No, worrying isn't necessary. And yes, the situation will get worse, because the cat will soon be pregnant. That's because the described behavior -- a rolling and yowling female cat -- is consistent with a cat who's in heat. The solution is a simple one: Make that spaying appointment right away.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband and I are looking for a dog and have been reading your book "Dogs for Dummies" to help us choose. The golden retriever club in our area has a 6-year-old male available for adoption. My husband and I met the dog last night at the current owner's house.
The dog seemed quite friendly and happy, except that he was very demanding of attention and growled and bared his teeth at my husband. He also snapped a little. This dog hasn't had any formal training, and the dog's owner seems to have let him have his own way quite a lot. He hasn't had a lot of grooming or bathing and hasn't lived with cats. He is also intact, although the rescue group will have him neutered.
My husband and I have two cats who are fairly timid, and we've never owned a dog before. Does this sound like too much for first-time dog owners to handle? -- H.L., via e-mail
A: Let me make this easy for you: Run. While the behavior problems this dog is showing may be fixable by someone with good training skills and a solid knowledge of canine behavior, he is clearly not for beginners. Any dog who growls or snaps when meeting new people is not one you should be thinking about adopting.
Goldens have a reputation for being sweet and easygoing, but I've known plenty who were not. Just because a dog is a golden doesn't automatically make the animal a perfect pet. Dog experts call such thinking the "Lassie syndrome": People see a breed in the media and start thinking that all dogs of that breed behave like the ones on TV do. Wrong!
Sometimes the problem is the result of a misunderstanding of what the breed's really like. Other times the difference between image and reality exists because overpopularity has had a negative affect on the breed.
The latter is the problem with goldens. A well-bred, properly trained and socialized golden retriever is about as nice a dog as you'll ever know. (But not perfect, especially in terms of shedding!) But because of the breed's popularity, you'll find plenty of goldens with serious health and temperament problems, thanks to clueless or careless breeders who jumped into the puppy business to make a buck.
Talk to the rescue group again, explaining why this dog won't work for you. Ask for leads on other dogs who need homes. If that doesn't work, visit the Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace Web site (www.golden-retriever.com) to find other rescue groups.
There are lots of great goldens and other dogs out there who deserve a break. Don't waste your loving home on a dog who'll give you grief.
Q: I have a 17-year-old cat. How old is that in "human" years? I'm guessing the "1 equals 7" rule for dogs doesn't apply to cats. -- M.D., via e-mail
A: The "1 equals 7" rule doesn't really apply for dogs, either. Consider: A dog who's a year old is a young adult, far more mature than a 7-year-old human child. I've heard of "1 equals 4" or "1 equals 5" rules for cats, but those don't make sense, for the same reasons the dog figures fail.
Sorry I can't offer you anything that's easy to remember, but here's the way to figure out the rough human equivalent of a cat's age: Figure the first year as taking the cat to around 15 or so, and the second year as equating to mid-20s in a human. After that, add four "human years" for each "cat year." That would put your cat at the equivalent of 85 years old in human terms -- a very honorable age, indeed.
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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