A friend of a friend, a co-worker from across the hall, another guest at a party ... someone will tell me he or she is looking for a perfect breed of dog for the family and ask me my opinion. The person will list the desired attributes: smart, easy to train, low-shedding, friendly, great with children.
I don't even have to think about it. "How about a poodle?" I say.
If the person who's asking is a man, chances are he'll make a disapproving face and tell me he was thinking of something more along the lines of a Labrador. If the person's a woman, I can put money on the prospect that she'll tell me her husband will never, ever go for a poodle.
I shrug, and think for the millionth time that what poodles need is a public-relations campaign. An image makeover, at the very least.
How can you ask for a dog better suited to more family situations than the poodle? The breed comes in three sizes -- the tiny toy, the still-small miniature and the full-sized standard -- and plenty of coat colors. They consistently rank near the top in intelligence and trainability. In smaller sizes, they're a clean and cheerful companion for a person who's not so mobile; in the full-sized version, they can be as outdoorsy as any other retriever.
Poodles were the top breed in the country for 23 years, displaced by cocker spaniels in the early '80s. (Labrador retrievers have held the top spot since 1990.) Year after year, poodles remain in the American Kennel Club's top 10, which says a lot about the devotion many feel for a breed that draws more than its share of snide remarks.
Most of those remarks, of course, have to do with the ridiculous fashions for show poodles. The grooming patterns are said to be based on protection for the water dog that the poodle is at heart, fashions taken to such extremes now as to be a silly parody of what a proud working dog might have once looked like.
Laugh if you want, because the great thing about a poodle is that he won't care. The genial poodle is as happy a dog as can be imagined, willing to join the party even if the laughs are at his own expense. The poodle lives to be happy, and is happy to share the joy.
Are there downsides to poodles? Of course. Those very coats that make them top show dogs and the butt of countless jokes require professional grooming at regular intervals. And all poodles, especially the smaller ones, tend to be barky.
As with any popular breed, poodles have plenty of health problems caused by careless breeding practices. The Poodle Club of America (www.poodleclubofamerica.org) lists more than a dozen serious congenital health problems, from Cushing's disease to epilepsy to luxated patellas, all of which may require lifelong veterinary care or surgery.
Healthy, well-socialized poodle puppies come from reputable breeders who are aware of the problems and breed only those animals certified clear of congenital health issues. Another possibility is to adopt a healthy adult poodle from a shelter or rescue group. The PCA offers referrals to breeders and breed-rescue groups on its Web site. You can also search for poodles in shelters and other rescue organizations by using Petfinder.org.
Is the poodle right for your family? If you can't take an occasional ribbing as well as a poodle can, maybe not. But if you're willing to look at what's really underneath that curly coat, you'll likely find a canine companion who's second to none.
Oodles of 'doodles'
The poodle has certainly had an impact when it comes to the creation of so-called "designer dogs" -- mixed breeds that recently have been in high demand.
The most common of these mixes has been around for decades: the cockapoo, a cross between a poodle and a cocker spaniel. More recently, mixes between Labradors and poodles (Labradoodles), golden retrievers and poodles (goldendoodles) and schnauzers and poodles (schnoodles) have become trendy.
"Doodle" breeders promote the mixes as hypo-allergenic (untrue, say allergists, in both poodles and poodle mixes) and healthier (debatable, say veterinarians, but the purebred vs. mixed-breed debate will never die). One thing that's certain: The prices are eye-popping, a thousand dollars (or even double that) for dogs that a decade ago would have been available for the price of a regular shelter adoption.
And still are, if you check the shelters and Web sites like Petfinder.com, where poodle mixes (and purebred poodles, for that matter) are plentiful.
Keeping pets warm, heating bills down
Q: Gable, my tuxedo cat, is old and creaky. He likes to stay warm. But with heating prices what they are, I'm thinking of turning the heat way down while I'm at work. I just don't have a lot of money to spend on heating the apartment for my cat. He'll be OK, right? -- R.Y., via e-mail
A: The desire to find the warmest spots sometimes gets cats into trouble, such as when they snuggle up next to warm engine blocks after a car has been turned off, or snuggle into a pile of warm clothes sitting in a dryer. At this time of year, it's always good to check for a cat before you start your car or dryer.
As for saving on your heating bills, it's not necessary to heat your entire home to keep a pet warm. I always set my thermostat to 55 degrees overnight or when I'm not home.
Healthy younger cats and dogs can weather such cool temperatures just fine indoors, especially with comfortable beds to snuggle into. For older pets, I break out a heated bed to provide warmth for those creaky joints.
You can find electric heated beds or pet-safe heating elements at any pet-supply outlet. The Snuggle Safe ($20) is another option, a reusable heating element that you put in the microwave to charge and then slip into your pet's bedding. The manufacturer says it'll stay warm for up to 12 hours.
Q: We have a 6-month-old cockapoo, a very sweet little dog. However, we just can't seem to get her completely housebroken. When we come home, she pees right in front of us. We have yelled at her and spanked her, but she doesn't get it. Any suggestions? -- A.W., via e-mail
A: This isn't a house-training issue, but rather a behavior called "submissive urination" that's pretty common in gentle young dogs. Many outgrow the problem, but others need understanding and help to put the puddling behind them.
First, the understanding: What your dog's doing is something another dog would recognize as a show of respect to higher-ranked member of her "pack." It's a dog's way of saying, "I recognize that you're the boss, so please don't hurt me!"
Your dog's release of urine when she greets you is meant to be something of a canine compliment, strange as that may seem to us. Punishing a dog for submissive urination is the worst thing you can do, since it only makes you seem more dominant to your dog, who'll try even harder to appease you.
This puppy needs reward-based training and gentle socialization to gain confidence and to understand that while you're indeed the boss, you're a kind and benevolent one who doesn't require a show of urinary respect.
Instead of punishing your dog, take the stress out of your arrival home. When you come home, don't make a big deal out of your reunion with your pet. Instead, come in and ignore your dog for a few minutes, then greet her calmly and quietly. If she puddles, ignore it and clean it up without comment later. Squat down to interact with your dog and avoid direct eye contact to seem less intimidating.
Work to build your dog's confidence with basic obedience training that includes gentle praise and treats. As you develop a loving and trusting relationship with your dog, her submissive urination will likely decrease.
If you need help, please ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Watch for signs of pet's diabetes
Excessive eating, drinking, urination and weight loss are the common symptoms of diabetes in dogs and cats. A urinary tract infection may be another clue, because the presence of sugar in the urine that occurs in a diabetic animal produces an excellent environment for the growth of bacteria.
Any animal who displays these symptoms needs to be evaluated for diabetes by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
The cells of the body require the sugar known as glucose as food, and they depend on the bloodstream to bring glucose to them. They cannot, however, absorb and use glucose unless a hormone known as insulin is present. Insulin is produced by the pancreas, and in a diabetic animal, there isn't enough insulin production.
The result is that the body cannot detect the glucose present in the blood and is fooled into thinking starvation is occurring. As with a starving animal, the body starts breaking down, with disastrous results.
Treating diabetes is a matter of adding the proper amount of insulin, often with injections. Working with a veterinarian to maintain proper insulin levels is something many pet lovers are willing to do. With a dedicated owner and a veterinarian's help, many diabetic animals can enjoy a good quality of life for years.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
What it takes to specialize
Only those veterinarians who have earned additional certification are allowed to call themselves "specialists."
Specialists are called "board-certified" because testing for specialty knowledge is handled (and those extra letters are given out) by review boards, such as the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) or the American College of Veterinary Internal Medical Practitioners (ACVIM).
To become board-certified by the ABVP in the care of a particular kind of animal (such as avian or feline medicine), a veterinarian must have been in practice for five years, must pass a rigorous credentialing process, and then must study for and pass a test.
Internal-medicine specialists such as cardiologists or oncologists work in a kind of medicine, not on a certain kind of animal, and earn their ACVIM credentials after serving residencies and then passing a test.
Board-certified specialists can be difficult to find if you don't live in a large urban area or near a college or school of veterinary medicine.
'Safe room' key to moving your cat
The best way to move with your cat is to confine him before and after moving day in a "safe room."
Choose a room where your cat isn't going to be disturbed, and outfit it with food and water, a litter box, a scratching post, a bed and toys.
Confining your cat not only reduces his stress, but also prevents him from slipping out, which is a danger at both the old home and the new. Your cat could easily become scared, take off and get lost, even in his familiar neighborhood, if he gets disoriented. Even if your cat turns up back at your old place, a reunion can be hard to arrange if you need to leave before you find him, especially if you've moved to another city.
A safe room is also good for bringing a new cat into your home and for retraining any cat with furniture-destroying or litter-box-avoiding habits.
Your cat should be confined in his safe room the day before packing begins, moved to his new home in a carrier, and then confined again in his new safe room until the moving is over, the furniture arranged and most of the dust settled.
Trying to force a scared and stressed-out cat to do anything he doesn't want to is hazardous to your health. After you arrive at your new home, don't pull your cat out of his carrier. Instead, put the carrier in his safe room, open the carrier door, and let him come out into the room when he wants to. After he's a little calmer, you can coax him out with some fresh food or treats if you want. But don't rush him and don't drag him out -- or you may be bitten or scratched.
When you have the rest of the house settled, open the door to the safe room and let your cat explore his new home, on his terms.
BY THE NUMBERS
Where puppies play
Image: shepherd (no credit)
Optional cutline: The top two dog parks in the nation are in Texas.
The editors of Dog Fancy magazine teamed up with the manufacturers of the pain medication Deramaxx to rank U.S. dog parks based on a range of criteria from safety considerations to owner educational resources. The top 10:
1. Millie Bush Bark Park -- Houston
2. Fort Woof Dog Park -- Fort Worth, Texas
3. Alimagnet Dog Park -- Burnsville, Minn.
4. Tompkins Square Dog Run -- New York, N.Y.
5. University City Dog Play Area -- University City, Mo.
6. Piedmont Dog Park -- Atlanta
7. Wiggly Field -- Chicago
8. Chattanooga Chew Chew Canine Park - Chattanooga, Tenn.
9. Best Friend Dog Park -- Huntington Beach, Calif.
10. Hazeldale Dog Park -- Aloha, Ore.
ON THE WEB
Reader Carol Sulanke is a librarian, which means she is wonderful when it comes to finding the best information on any subject. So when she wrote me about the Cats International Web site (www.catsinternational.org), I had to take a look.
This well-designed site is the home of an organization dedicated to getting out good information on feline behavior and care, to help people and cats live more happily together. The articles run from common behavior problems (house-soiling, furniture-scratching) to interesting information about cats, and are well-written and reflect the latest behavioral advice. (As for fun facts: Did you know a cat will blink when his whiskers are touched? It's an automatic response designed to protect the eyes.)
The site also offers a behavior hot line for those who'd like to discuss their pet's problems directly. Links to other sites offering cat-friendly advice and products are also provided.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600