It's a hot day at the dog park, and I'm sharing the shade with the other "doggy parents," chatting while we watch our pets play.
In the middle of the park, the dogs have dug out a crater the size of a small hot tub. The sprinklers fill the pit every morning, and by afternoon, it's still at least half full of stinky, slimy, muddy water. It's disgusting, and most of the dogs have the common sense to avoid it.
Except the retrievers.
While not all of them see it as a swimming hole, most see no reason to avoid the muck, jumping in and out as they play. One retriever is even worse than the other water dogs. She throws herself into the muddy bog, rolling and wallowing until every inch of her glossy black coat is dripping brown with foul-smelling mud. She finally stands up, nose-to-tail-tip filthy and obviously delighted with herself.
"Oh my God!" says the woman next to me, her tone of disgust unmistakable. "Whose dog is that?"
"Um, that would be mine," I mumble.
Rule No. 1 for anyone who has or is thinking of adopting a retriever: Be willing to carry towels in your car at all times.
I love retrievers, and in this I'm not alone. The Labrador retriever is the top breed in the land; 165,970 of them were registered with the American Kennel Club in 2001. The golden retriever is the AKC's second most popular breed, with 62,497 recorded in the same year. All told, the five retriever breeds (the Chesapeake Bay, flat-coated and curly-coated are the others) make up more than one-fifth of all AKC registrations.
Retrievers are popular for good reason. They're great family dogs, even-tempered, friendly and tolerant. They're generally easy to train and eager to please. They have coats that clean up quickly, and they don't shed as much as many other breeds. (Even my water-crazed Heather dries up and shakes off most of the muddy muck she gets into in just a few minutes.)
But anyone associated with a shelter or rescue group can tell you that despite their popularity, retrievers are not for everyone. They get dumped by the hundreds, often by people who didn't research the downside to owning one of these dogs or who proved unwilling to put in the effort it takes to keep one.
People, for example, who think muddy paws (or muddy dogs) are intolerable. Or those who aren't prepared to put time into training and exercising these large and exuberant animals. While some breeds and mixes can better tolerate the life of a "backyard dog" (although I never recommend this lonely life for any dog), retrievers are especially ill suited to such isolation. Developed to work one-on-one with a hunter, the personable retriever does best as a full-fledged member of a family. Kept in a back yard, a retriever will get bored and anxious, and may become a digger, escape artist or nonstop barker.
Is a retriever right for you? Even if you're well-suited to these breeds, it pays to carefully consider any canine adoption. Like all purebreds, retrievers have congenital health problems that can make your dog miserable and cost you a bundle, if indeed they can be treated. If you're buying a puppy, be sure to find a reputable breeder who has had the parents certified free of these problems, most commonly hip dysplasia.
If you're considering an adult dog, you'll be able to assess health and temperament with the aid of the shelter or rescue group. A lot of great dogs turn up in shelters and rescue groups, many with some training and such preventive-care measures as vaccinations and neutering already done. Another reason to go for an adult: Retrievers are notoriously slow to mature, and can maintain troublesome puppy behaviors well into the second or third year of their lives. If you want a mellow retriever, get an older dog.
I love retrievers, especially my own two. But I brought them into my life knowing they'd need a lot from me to keep their minds and bodies in good shape. And even though I occasionally wince at the water-related messes they get into, I'd never trade Benjamin or even Heather at her filthiest for any other dogs in the world.
PETS ON THE WEB
You can find out about the American Kennel Club's retriever breeds by clicking on the Web sites of the various national clubs from the AKC's breed page, www.akc.org/breeds. The Labrador Resources site (www.labrador-resources.com) offers some of the most important questions you should ask when determining if the breed (or indeed, any retriever breed) is right for you. And finally, be sure to check out Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace (www.golden-retriever.com), a site devoted to finding new homes for goldens who need them.
Although most people associate rabies with dogs, cases of feline rabies are not uncommon -- and are very much a cause for concern. In many areas, rabies vaccinations are required by law for cats as well as dogs.
Rabies is caused by a viral infection of the nervous system. Although the risk of contracting rabies from your cat -- or any cat -- is extremely small, the disease is so deadly that, if your cat were to contract it, he would need to be humanely killed, and you might need to have a series of inoculations for your own protection.
This disease is nothing to mess with, which is why it's important to get your cat vaccinated, regardless of what the law requires, for the protection of your cat and the rest of your family.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Are meat-based "real" foods healthier for dogs than high-quality dry kibble? I feed my dog both but worry about the cost and storage of these "real" products. -- E.M., via e-mail
A: A small but vocal minority of pet lovers feed their dogs a diet of raw meat and bones, along with vegetables and dietary supplements. Proponents argue that dogs weren't designed to eat the grains that are a major component of kibble, and blame everything from allergies to cancer on commercial pet foods.
Many veterinarians oppose raw diets (as do manufacturers of traditional dog foods, of course). Detractors, including some prominent veterinarians with advanced degrees in nutrition, believe raw diets don't offer nutritional balance, and can be dangerous because of salmonella and other risks that come with handling and feeding raw meat. Proponents respond that the majority of veterinarians have little training in nutrition, and are influenced by courses in school and post-degree training provided by pet-food companies. They point to plenty of healthy pets, including some who had health problems disappear after a switch to a raw diet.
You'll find good arguments either way you go, that's for sure.
One argument against raw-food diets is price and inconvenience. Commercially prepared raw diets are convenient but can be expensive. Preparing everything from scratch brings down the price considerably -- if you invest in a freezer so you can buy in bulk -- but does take a lot more planning and work than buying and opening a bag of kibble.
One of the leaders of the raw food movement is Australian veterinarian Dr. Ian Billinghurst, author of the books "Give Your Dog a Bone" and "The BARF Diet." (Both are available from Dogwise, www.dogwise.com or 800-776-2665.) You'll also find plenty of Web sites and e-mail lists also dedicated to these diets, collectively referred to as "BARF," which stands for Bones and Raw Flesh or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food.
If you're interested in a raw-food diet for your pet, do your homework first. Read books and Web sites, and join a BARF-related e-mail list. And if you decide these diets are not worth the effort you'll have to invest, don't feel guilty: The majority of people who feed high-quality kibble have dogs who look and feel fine -- as do the majority of dogs fed a well-planned raw diet.
Q: Is it really safe to use old newspapers in my bird's cage? What about the ink? -- B.D., via e-mail
A: Old newspapers are so commonly used to line the bottom of birdcages that many manufacturers size their products so that the trays fit the sheets exactly. My "Birds For Dummies" co-author, avian veterinarian Dr. Brian Speer, says he knows of no evidence that the ink causes any health problems for birds. He suggests sticking to black-and-white pages, though, and skipping the glossy color inserts.
If you really want to go ink-free, check with your local newspaper. Some offer the ends of the newsprint rolls that go on the presses, usually at a bargain price.
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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