By Christie Keith
Universal Press Syndicate
In a dog lover's perfect world, everyone would have dogs, love dogs, work with dogs or be a dog. Luckily, you can visit that perfect world anytime you want, just by peeking between the covers of one of the many mysteries produced by some of the dog world's best authors.
The godmother of the dog mystery, Susan Conant, unabashedly writes about the dog world from an insider's perspective. "I was reading lots of mysteries," Conant said, "and I knew there was no series about dogs. What I wanted to do was hold a mirror up to all of us, and I thought that all of us would be amused by our reflection."
Conant holds her mirror on a Cambridge, Mass., that is populated by perplexed psychoanalysts and eccentric academics, and has an alarmingly high crime rate. The heroes of the story are dog writer Holly Winter and her Alaskan malamutes, Rowdy and Kimi, who manage to stumble on at least one murder in every book.
Proving herself to be a diehard dog lover, Conant's first concern wasn't that she wouldn't be able to sell the books to a publisher, but that Rowdy and Kimi would be so appealing it might make the Alaskan malamute a fad breed.
"One of the first letters I ever got from a reader was hilarious," said Conant. "She said, 'After reading your book, I'm never going to get a dog and certainly not an Alaskan malamute.' And I thought, 'Wow, I certainly succeeded there.'"
You may not know anything about the world of dog shows, but neither does Melanie Travis, the reluctant crime solver in Laurien Berenson's poodle mysteries.
"I really wanted to write a cozy mystery, and I wanted to set it in the dog-show world," Berenson said. So she created a heroine who not only wasn't a dog-show insider, but she'd also never so much as owned a dog before. Her eccentric, poodle-breeding Aunt Peg changes all that when she asks Melanie to help her look into the circumstances of her husband's death. Before you can say "best in show," Melanie's knee-deep in crime and sharing her life with a bouncing black standard poodle named Faith.
Melanie is as bemused as any average person would be at the excesses of the dog-show circuit, but Berenson swears she's playing down reality. "I remember being at a show where this storm blew in, just slightly below a hurricane," she said. "The rings were literally under water. And they judged the toy group by getting everyone to bring their grooming tables and putting them back to back, and the toys were moved up and down the grooming tables."
Sometimes the dogs in dog mysteries are more than companions: They're actually crime fighters themselves. Two of the standout series in the dog mystery genre feature working dogs. Bloodhound handler Jo Beth Sidden made her debut in the award-winning "Death in Bloodhound Red" by the late Virginia Lanier. Jo Beth and the dog she calls her soul mate, a blind bloodhound named Bobby Lee, track lost children, escaped convicts and drug dealers into the Georgia swamplands.
Carol Lea Benjamin was best known for her dog-training books, but found a whole new set of fans when she introduced private investigator Rachel Alexander and her pit bull, Dash. The hard-boiled New York PI routinely looks into crimes that showcase the darker side of human nature, tackling themes including child abuse, homelessness and mental illness.
"I don't write dog mysteries," said Benjamin. "I write mysteries with a working dog in them."
Book 'em, doggo!
Here's an overview of the latest from the current top-selling writers of canine mysteries.
The Rachel Alexander series
Author: Carol Lea Benjamin
Sleuth: A private investigator in New York City
Dog: Dashiell the pit bull
Most Recent: "The Hard Way" (William Morrow)
Best: "A Hell of a Dog"
Darker and grittier than other mysteries in the genre, Benjamin's books touch on difficult themes, including homelessness, 9/11, child abuse and mental illness. The series becomes darker as it progresses and less focused on dog-related plots -- although Dash is still front and center. This is a dog mystery series for mystery buffs who don't like books about dogs, but it will also work for those who do.
The Melanie Travis series
Author: Laurien Berenson
Sleuth: A single mom and schoolteacher in a small New Jersey town
Dog: Standard poodle (and show dog) Faith
Most Recent: "Chow Down" (Kensington)
Best: "Best in Show"
Melanie Travis does seem to get into an awful lot of trouble despite her seemingly benign life as a schoolteacher and single mom. And her poodle, Faith, isn't much help in solving the mysteries, but rather too good at getting her embroiled ever more deeply in them. And she has nothing on Melanie's Aunt Peg, who never met a mystery she didn't want Melanie to solve. Light and charming.
The Holly Winter series
Author: Susan Conant
Sleuth: A dog writer in Cambridge, Mass.
Dogs: Alaskan malamutes Rowdy and Kimi
Most Recent: "Gaits of Heaven" (Berkley)
Best: "The Barker Street Irregulars"
Either being a dog writer is a lot more dangerous than anyone could imagine, or a certain suspension of disbelief is needed to read Susan Conant's mystery series. Still, Holly is so delightful -- and her malamutes so captivating -- that most readers will be more than happy to take a little break from realism. Conant holds up a mirror to the world of dog people, with a mostly loving effect. -- Christie Keith
Keep litter box on the inside
Q: I rescued my cat when he was 6 months old. He's about 2 years old now, and he's an inside and outside cat. I would like him to stop using the litter box and start going to the bathroom outside. How can I get him to do so? -- C.K., via e-mail
A: Although your cat can probably figure out how to make the transition to using the outside facilities on his own, I'd recommend sticking with the inside litter box for at least three good reasons:
First, being a good neighbor. When your cat's using the litter box, he's not using your neighbor's flower bed, vegetable garden or children's sandbox. It's not fair to your neighbors for them to have to deal with your cat's mess. And it's not very safe for your cat! You would not believe the number of angry e-mails I get from people who are ready to trap and take to the shelter (or even kill) a neighbor's cat over this issue.
Second, there's a health consideration. When you're cleaning the litter box once or twice a day, you're able to see changes in your cat's patterns of elimination. Is there a problem with diarrhea? A sudden increase in urination? Straining to pass feces? All of these problems could be symptoms of a serious health issue, and the sooner you catch it, the better for your cat (and your bank account).
Finally, there's an environmental concern. Cats are non-native species who spread diseases such as toxoplasmosis. Preliminary studies suggest that cat waste washed off the land and into the sewer system can end up killing native species such as otters in some parts of the country. The safest way to handle cat waste is to remove it from the litter box and place it in a digesting pet waste composter (not your garden compost!), or wrap it and place it in your household trash receptacle for pickup.
Honestly, it's not that difficult or time-consuming to keep a litter box clean. There are even litter boxes on the market that will clean themselves, wrapping the waste for easy disposal every few days. My advice: Keep the box inside for the good of all. It's the responsible thing to do. -- Gina Spadafori
Q: Our dog is a Rottweiler, a wonderful, lovable and obedient dog except for her aggression toward other dogs.
When I'm walking her and she sees a dog, she starts biting her leash, pulling and going crazy. The first incident resulted in her grabbing a small fluffy dog and shaking it. More than $1,000 later, she was lucky she did not get reported. What should I do? -- B.W., via e-mail
A: Your dog will kill another dog if you do not take responsibility from this second forward. Do not take your dog off your property without putting a comfortable box muzzle on her to prevent her from hurting someone else's pet. And make double-sure your fences and gates are secure so she does not get the chance to get out on her own.
Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist who can evaluate your dog's aggression and set up a program to help you control, manage and potentially retrain this animal.
I'm glad you're taking this seriously enough to ask for help. If, with the help of a behaviorist, you cannot get your dog to a stage where she can be trusted, she must always be in a comfortable muzzle when she's away from your home. The sad alternative to managing her aggression, I'm afraid, is euthanasia, and I know you do not want that. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Make carrier a cat's home
Every cat benefits from learning to relax inside a carrier. This prepares the cat for traveling safely and with less stress, whether to a friend's house, for boarding or for a veterinary visit.
Select a cloth-type bag that can fit under an airplane seat or a hard plastic carrier that is easier to clean and keep long term.
Put the open carrier in your cat's favorite location -- on a dresser or by a favorite window is ideal. Make sure nothing bad happens in or around the carrier, and make it the best place to be. Add a cushy bed. Feed your cat in the carrier, play in and around the carrier, and hide treats and sprinkle catnip inside.
For two weeks, look at, speak to and love up the cat only around and inside the carrier. Otherwise, the cat is ignored. Close the carrier door with the cat inside for short periods after a few weeks of acclimation.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dogmobiles," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or visiting PetConnection.com.
Tips for teaching your cat not to bite
Do you have a cat who loves your petting one minute and bites your hand the next? While you can't completely turn a "skitty kitty" into a purring slug cat, you can work to increase your pet's tolerance for petting.
If your cat bites your hand while you're petting him, you've missed more than a couple of messages from him asking you to stop. The key one: a tail twitch that becomes more agitated and finally escalates into a noticeable thump or thrash.
You should also be aware that some places on a cat's body are more sensitive than others. For a highly reactive cat, restrict your caresses to behind the ears, under the chin or at the base of the tail.
Work to build your cat's tolerance to touch over time. When you pick up your cat for a petting session, don't surprise him. Come up on him slowly and pick him up gently. Pet the safe areas only, watching for the first sign of a tail twitch.
When you get that first early warning sign, stop petting him and allow him to calm down or leave if he wants to. Don't let it go so far that he feels the need to bite or to jump off you quickly. The key is to work up to the outskirts of tolerance and stop there, so your cat will learn to trust you in longer sessions.
Never hit a cat for biting. If you miss the signs and end up in your cat's non-affectionate embrace, just freeze. Providing no resistance will help calm your cat so he will just let go.
If you fight back or physically punish your cat, you are more likely to get bitten or scratched. You'll also undo your good training efforts and may hurt your relationship with your pet in the long run. -- Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
Cats and dogs rule
Cats and dogs remain the most popular pets, according to a 2006 survey of American pet owners. The percentage of households that have a particular kind of pet, by type:
Dog 37 percent
Cat 32 percent
Freshwater fish 12 percent
Bird 5 percent
Small animal 5 percent
Reptile 4 percent
Horse 4 percent
Saltwater fish 1 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
PETS ON THE WEB
Get to know your budgie
All budgerigars are parakeets, but not all parakeets are budgerigars. Got that? So quit calling those little blue or green birds "parakeets" and do as the Brits do: Call them budgies.
Far from just being a "starter pet" for children, budgies can fit into almost any household situation. They're small enough that their cages don't take up too much space, and they're quiet enough to keep the neighbors from complaining. Some budgies are also outstanding talkers, learning to mimic hundreds of sounds, words and phrases.
The Me & My Budgie Web site (www.budgies.org) is a good place to go to start increasing your appreciation of these great little pets. The site offers good advice on care and feeding, as well pictures and stories submitted by budgie fans. There's even an arts and crafts section, with instructions on how to make safe, inexpensive toys for your bird. -- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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