Everything in nature is there for a reason -- from opposable thumbs to brightly colored feathers, it all serves a purpose. That thought had me contemplating a puppy -- as I was doing at 3 a.m. on a warm spring night -- and wondering what evolutionary forces came into play to make babies of all kinds so utterly adorable.
While I can't speak to the matter of the baby wildebeest, elk or muskrat, I have a pretty good idea about puppies, kittens, baby parrots and the youngsters of most every other critter we keep as pets.
They're adorable to keep us from wanting to kill them at 3 a.m. when they need to go outside, or anytime when they're climbing the draperies, attacking our bare toes with needle-sharp baby teeth or chewing up our favorite pair of shoes.
Sometimes, you want to throttle them. And then ... that face! Suddenly, you're powerless to do anything except swoop them up and croon at them. For being adorable. For being babies. For being yours.
Which is why, at 3 a.m. on a warm spring night, instead of being annoyed at having my sleep interrupted, I found myself gazing down with delight at 6 pounds of puppy, praising him warmly for doing what comes oh-so-naturally, but in the yard instead of the house.
After almost 16 years during which I adopted dogs as needs-a-new-home adults and swore I preferred it that way, I am raising a puppy again.
I wanted a small dog, to complement my big dogs and also allow me take a pet with me in the cabin when I travel by plane. I wanted a calm and outgoing breed, and one that's relatively quiet. A dog who didn't need a dreadful lot of grooming for the dog shows I've been known to dabble in. And one, finally, who despite his small size acts like a big dog.
All those traits came together in a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, more specifically in the youngster I've named Danny, who arrived in my home at the age of 11 weeks and has hardly allowed us a quiet moment since.
The retrievers aren't amused. Benjamin, whose head is bigger than Danny's wiggly little body, takes advantage of his size to remove himself from the puppy's reach, jumping over low baby gates into adjacent rooms or hopping into the chair in the living room that is his favorite place for sleeping (aside, of course, from my bed). Heather refuses to be so inconvenienced, preferring instead to stay in place and discipline the little pest with the swift actions of any good dog-mother -- a low warning growl, a stop-that-now glare, or for the most serious infractions, a firm pinning of the puppy to the ground with paw or muzzle.
The puppy, who initially believed the retrievers to be jumbo-sized chew toys, is now learning to show some respect for his elders. Puppy cuteness doesn't count for much with other dogs.
For my part, I hear from too many readers with dog problems that could have been prevented to let even the most adorable puppy get away with all that much. Fortunately, the emphasis in modern dog training is on the positive -- on structuring the environment to prevent bad behavior while rewarding good behavior. With such a plan, punishment is largely a thing of the past.
Which is a good thing, because with a puppy as adorable as Danny, all I want to do is tell him, over and over, what a clever and good puppy he is.
Oh, it's wonderful to have a puppy in the house again! Even at 3 a.m. on a warm spring night.
PETS ON THE WEB
OK, so they're not pets -- and shouldn't be -- but crocodiles were interesting even before that crazy Australian Steve Irwin became famous for mud-wrestling with them. The Crocodilians Web site (www.crocodilian.com) offers a lot of information about these fascinating beasties, compiled by people who clearly admire them. The site is scientific in its approach, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining. My favorite area: sound files of croc vocalizations, from the bellows of a mating male to the first cries of a hatchling.
Tired of cleaning up hairballs? Add some fiber to your cat's diet. A little bit of canned pumpkin added to your pet's regular meals -- mixing into wet food is ideal -- will help the fur ingested by grooming to pass through the digestive system, instead of being thrown up onto your carpets. Regular combing and brushing also helps, especially if your pet has long hair. The fur you catch when grooming your cat won't end up as a hairball, or as hair you'll be cleaning off your clothes Canned pumpkin has an advantage over oil-based hairball remedies: Overusing the latter can decrease the absorption of some essential nutrients.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Don't think for a minute that your dog is safe in a dog park. In a matter of seconds our 13-pound corgi-mix, Newman, was in the jaws of a female pit-bull mix. Newman's neck and stomach were ripped wide open.
We rushed Newman to the emergency veterinary hospital. On our way to the car one of the owners of the dog who attacked him said, "Please come back so I can get your name to pay the vet bill." En route to the vet my wife and I noticed we had both been bitten. Did the pit bull have her shots? Who knows?
After dropping Newman and my wife at the veterinary hospital, I returned to the dog park, only to find it empty. What do you suggest we do now? I've included a picture of Newman, all stitched up. -- R.D., via e-mail
A: As I've written before, people with aggressive dogs have no business taking their pets into a dog park. The first thing you should do: Report the incident to your local animal-control authorities. You've both been bitten by a dog with unknown vaccination status. The dog must be found and determined to be free of rabies for your safety.
Newman is a mess, to be sure, but I'm so relieved by the picture you sent to see that he'll recover.
I agree with you that dog parks have their risks. In fact, in addition to arguing that problem dogs stay home, I also believe that small ones should, too. You never know what will happen when dogs mix it up, but you can be sure that if a fight breaks out, the little dog will get the worst of it.
Some dog parks have two areas -- one for big dogs, one for smaller ones. This is a great idea.
I love dog parks, and take my retrievers to them all the time. While I have been known to strongly suggest to other dog-park users that they remove their potentially dangerous dog, I usually find it easier to whistle up my dogs and leave. People with aggressive dogs usually come in one of three varieties: They're either proud of their tough animal, clueless of the danger or in complete denial. Whichever it is, I don't want to take a chance with my dogs around theirs.
Your local officials will likely be able to find the dog, and when the animal is located, the owners may pony up for the veterinary bills, as they first indicated they would. If they balk, you may want to consult an attorney for advice.
Q: I read your column regarding barking dogs. What about citronella collars? Are they effective? Our dog barks whenever people approach the house, and the neighbors are tired of it. -- M.D., via e-mail
A: I'm very much a fan of citronella collars, which spray a harmless mist from underneath the dog's muzzle when he barks. They work well for many dogs in interrupting undesirable behavior. If you can't find the collar locally, you can buy it from catalog and online retailers such as Doctors Foster and Smith (www.drsfostersmith.com). It retails for around $120.
The citronella collar is a useful tool, but it's not a magic fix for barking. Is your dog barking because he's an outdoor pet who can see the neighborhood comings and goings and has nothing better to do than yap? Bored outside pets are often chronic barkers, and slapping a bark collar on such animals isn't the entire answer.
Look at the whole picture. Does your dog need more exercise? Can you bring him in and so reduce the sounds and sights that trigger barking? These two things alone will often reduce barking, or at least reduce the nuisance factor for your neighbors.
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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