It used to be that carrying a tiny dog in an expensive handbag was the nearly exclusive behavior of aging society matrons. In recent years, the age of high society has drifted downward at least half a century, as women like Paris Hilton have set off a fashion fury with their constant carrying of diminutive canines such as Hilton's own Tinkerbell, a Chihuahua almost as well-known as the heiress herself.
Toy dogs have never been more popular or more fashionable. Cast as furry accessories in the pages of fashion magazines, the smallest dogs are suddenly the biggest trend in pets.
But there are problems with being a must-have accessory for the fashion-forward, and toy dog expert Darlene Arden is happy to list them. Author of "Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" and a certified behavior expert specializing in small dogs, Arden is an unabashed fan of tiny canines. But she'd also like to stop people who aren't really thinking things through from getting one this holiday season.
"Small dogs are my passion," said Arden, on the phone from her home in the Boston area. "I've had dogs all my life, but there's something special about the little dogs. They bond in a very different way, and they're totally portable companions. The dog to a certain degree understands he depends on you for protection."
The dependence starts long before you ever bring a little dog home, says Arden. The popularity of small dogs means there are lots of clueless and careless people breeding them. At this time of year, reputable breeders are hard to find, but adorable puppies from large-scale breeders (including those hellholes that animal advocacy groups call "puppy mills") and money-driven backyard breeders are everywhere.
Arden says it's important to find the right toy breed and the right breeder, and that may take time. If you don't proceed with caution, she warns, you may end up with a dog with severe health and temperament problems.
"The problem with toy dogs is that they're so small -- think what they're like inside. Part of what's going on now is because the emphasis is on producing ever-smaller dogs," she says. "'Teacup' is a marketing term coined by commercial breeders and backyard breeders, not by reputable breeders. Getting smaller and smaller dogs is NOT what good breeders strive for."
Even if people do get their dog from a reputable source, they can ruin a little dog's attitude by forgetting that their adorable little pet is indeed a dog.
"People truly confuse these dogs with toys," says Arden, "and that's a huge mistake. I blame fashion editors, who feature celebrities carrying dogs as if they were accessories. But they're not bracelets or purses. Other people turn them into child substitutes to the nth degree, dressing them in frilly dresses and Mary Jane shoes.
"You have to realize a dog is another species. You're not doing the dog a favor if you're treating it as if it were a human child," she says, adding that such indulgence can lead to a pet who's anything but a good companion. "There's nothing worse than Cujo in a small package. Socialization and training are so important, because facial bites are not unusual if you end up with a nasty toy dog.
Arden isn't trying to discourage anyone from adopting a small dog, but she does want people to consider all their options before they buy.
"Do a lot of research," she says. "Figure out which toy breed you want, which fits in with how much grooming you're prepared for, how active you are, and how big your dog should be. Find out which health problems exist in the breed. Then go to a dog show, meet with breeders, and ask them what they're doing to eliminate those health problems. You should be able to get a health guarantee to a reasonable age if you're dealing with a reputable breeder."
If you choose well, says Arden, you'll be rewarded with the companionship of a healthy, well-mannered pet for many years, since many toy dogs outlive their larger relatives. Consider those extra years as your reward for choosing the dog who's right for you, instead of choosing what's trendy at the moment.
Resources for those who love little dogs
Darlene Arden had already written one of the best reference books on small dogs ever in 1997. "The Irrepressible Toy Dog" celebrated these diminutive dogs and predicted their climb in popularity.
Arden has had a chance to redo her wonderful reference, revising and updating it completely as the new "Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" ($20, Howell Book House). The book expands on the first one, including more information on health, behavior and training. A must-have for anyone who has or wants a little dog as a companion.
Puppies need Time, training
Q: I am 12 years old, and I have a yellow Labrador named Cali. She's 6 months old. I love her so much, but I have to admit she is a bad dog. She chews many things, and she cannot sit still. Whenever guests come in the door, she jumps all over them. She digs in the back yard and gets dirt all over the carpets.
My mom gets very angry. We had a lot of talks about giving her to my aunt, but I would not let that happen. Please help me! -- D.N., via e-mail
A: Cali's not a bad dog: She's a puppy. Labradors are notorious for being extremely active and often destructive in their youth. But with guidance, most mature into wonderful, easygoing companions.
Your dog needs exercise, training and patience. When you get home from school, play fetch with Cali for at least a half an hour, more if you can. Better still would be two sessions of fetch or other high-energy exercise every single day. Lots of exercise will help with her energy levels, and it will also help with the destructiveness.
Ask your mom if you and Cali can be enrolled in a local dog-training class. You'll also need to restrict Cali's range in the house and yard to limit the destructiveness. Get her some sturdy chew toys (such as a Kong, which can be stuffed with peanut butter) to keep her busy when you cannot be with her or supervise her.
Finally, I have a book that's perfect for you. Kate Eldredge is just a little older than you are, and her book, "Head of the Class: A Teen Dog Expert Teaches You to Raise and Train the Perfect Pal" ($17, Howell Book House), was written with you in mind.
Hang in there! If you keep Cali exercised and stay with her training, things will get better for everyone.
Calming a yapper
Q: We have a 13-year-old Sheltie who's extremely shy and noisy. She barks at strangers and family who come and go. If we have company, she's settled and quiet if everyone is seated and not moving, but if anyone stands or leaves the room, she barks. If we close her in a bedroom, she barks until we let her out.
We're having holiday company over soon. Do you have any suggestions for helping a neurotic herding dog get through the holidays? -- G.S., via e-mail
A: Is this extreme barking a new behavior? Shelties are one of the noisier breeds -- believe me, I know, having had at least one for the last 25 years -- but there are degrees of noisiness, and your dog seems over the top. If the barking has increased recently, I'd wonder if there is not some health issue going on, especially given your dog's age.
If this is long-standing behavior, then I'd get a crate (one with closed sides, not open grating) and get her used to it by feeding her in it with the door open, then the door closed. Get her used to the crate slowly, so she's comfortable in it.
When you have company over, crate her behind a closed bedroom door, with something yummy to chew on, and turn on a radio to muffle noises that trigger barking. It's not ideal, but it ought to get everyone through the day with the least amount of stress.
For a longer-term solution, please ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist who can help you with this problem. Old dogs can often learn new tricks!
Don't delay: Neuter today
Veterinary organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association now endorse early spaying and neutering on animals as young as 8 weeks old. Many humane associations and shelters are already doing this to prevent the "kittens out, kittens in" cycle.
At 8 weeks, 8 months or even 8 years, there's no reason to wait -- and a lot of reasons to go forward. Keeping kittens from being parents is the only way to prevent future kittens from dying for the lack of a home. And that's not all -- spaying and neutering offer some real health and behavior benefits for you as a pet owner:
-- Neutered males are less likely to roam and less likely to fight (and thus less likely to have you writing checks to your veterinarian after she patches up your cat). Neutering greatly reduces the problems with urine-spraying and will give your cat a chance at the longest life possible. With all that "catting about," unneutered males are prime candidates for getting run over or picking up deadly contagious diseases through mating or fighting.
-- Spayed females are more attentive and loving because they're not spending all their time looking for mates. Female cats are in heat nearly nonstop until they become pregnant, and they are also at a higher risk for accidental death or contagious disease.
-- Living with a cat looking for a mate can be very trying. They cry. They roll. They rub. They yowl. They spray. It's no fun.
Get your pet fixed. It's the right thing to do.
Winter garden for your cat
Cats love to nibble on plants, especially the tender shoots of new grasses. You can delight your pet by keeping a windowsill garden, sowing a new crop of alfalfa, rye and wheat grasses every couple of weeks. Long, shallow planters are ideal for grasses, and decorative ones can be found inexpensively at any garden or home center.
Your cat may also enjoy pots planted with parsley and thyme, although you may wish to allow these plants to become more established before putting them where your cat can chew on them. The same can be said of catnip and of valerian, another plant that offers mood-altering benefits to some cats.
Unless you want to find these plants uprooted by a very happy cat, you're better off growing them out of reach of your pet and cutting off sprigs for your pet to enjoy.
Rapport, technique key to choosing a vet
Many pet lovers make the mistake of believing veterinarians are pretty much interchangeable. In fact, you're doing your pet a disservice if you don't put a little effort into choosing the right veterinarian.
And once you've found a good one, you need to develop trust and rapport so you're working as a team for your pet's health.
Any veterinarian you consider should be technically proficient, current on the latest treatments, and willing to seek out more information on your pet's behalf or work with a veterinary specialist. A good vet should be able to explain what's going on with your pet in a way you can understand and be willing to answer your questions, so you can make a responsible decision on your pet's behalf.
Ask friends, co-workers and neighbors for recommendations. Over the years, animal lovers can tell which veterinarians are knowledgeable, compassionate and hardworking. Those veterinarians are always talked up by satisfied clients. Other factors may help you narrow down your list of possibilities:
-- Is the clinic or hospital conveniently located, with hours you can live with? If you have a 9-to-5 job, a veterinarian with a 9-to-5 clinic doesn't do your pet much good. Many veterinarians are open late on at least one weeknight and for at least a half-day on Saturday.
-- What kind of emergency care is available, if any? Although emergency veterinary clinics are prepared for any catastrophe, they are not familiar with your pet. If your veterinarian's practice does not offer 24-hour care, does it work with one that does?
-- Do you feel a rapport with this person? Are you comfortable asking questions? Discussing fees?
The final call on whether a particular veterinarian is right for you comes down to intangibles. If you don't feel comfortable, you're less likely to ask your veterinarian questions, and the lack of productive communication hurts your pet in the long run.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Pets? No thanks!
Among people who have no desire for a pet, cleaning up after the animals is one of the main reasons for lack of interest. Here are some of the top reasons why people don't want pets (multiple answers allowed):
Don't want to clean up after them 38 percent
No one home during the day 36 percent
Not enough time 33 percent
Shedding 33 percent
Too much responsibility 32 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
PETS ON THE WEB
Site offers home for all dog books
Want to find the cutting-edge books on dog care and training? Check out Dogwise (www.dogwise.com). Mass-market suppliers of books and pet products generally rely on large or well-connected publishers for a rather limited range of titles that may not reflect the latest thinking in training, dog sports or care and nutrition. Even retailers with large inventories -- such as online giant Amazon -- don't know enough about pets to steer you to the best dog books.
The folks at Dogwise have made it their business to figure out what's new and what's likely to change the way we think about dogs. Dogwise is also careful to stock high-quality titles that won't sell enough to interest a mass retailer, such as a care manual on a rare breed. The Web site is also the place to look for books on working through a specific training problem, such as aggression.
Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" 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.petconnection.com.
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