Small Dogs, Big Hearts
An interview with Darlene Arden
by Scott Rose

The animal care expert extraordinaire Darlene Arden recently launched small dogs, big hearts. The book is an expansion of her previous, well-received volume the irrepresible toy dog. Comprehensive and informational enough to be a significant read for all dogs' humans, it's a witty-bitty-nose to QT-pie-tail guide for optimal experiences with diminutive doggies.

Darlene's love of animals began early on. She saved up as a child to get a Miniature Poodle, Dani. Her mother accidentally stepped on Dani's paw one day. Flooded by guilt, she gave Dani a cookie. Was Dani a dummy? He kept giving Darlene's mom pitiful glances accompanied by lots-a-limpin'. He was rewarded with cookies out the kazoo for about a month, but then one day limped on the wrong foot. Dogs reading this should take notice; your humans are smarter than you might think.

Later, Darlene had a Yorkie, Neezie, whom she describes as a canine genius. He knew all of his toys by name and would retrieve the correct one upon hearing his name. Told he was going on a trip, he'd select two toys and drop them in the suitcase himself.

For several reasons, Darlene eliminated the word "toy" from the title of her new book. For one, she wants people to understand that the designation "toy" as applied to dogs is really just a marketing term. Indeed, dogs are lots of fun but they are living beings, not toys. Then too, Darlene's advice is suitable for all breeds twenty pounds and under.

That isn't to say that nothing in the book is useful to big dog aficionados. Darlene observes that lots of long-time dog people are "downsizing" to smaller breeds; her book gives all-inclusive info on the particulars of selecting, training and caring for the wee ones. People with big dogs, furthermore, should know how to properly handle encounters with smaller dogs when out and about. The owner of a big dog, for example, should not think the best solution to every small vs. big problem is for the small dog's owner to pick it up. If the big dog still views the little one as prey, it could lunge and do injury to the person. But far be it from me to say that when a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are snarling at each other, the Great Dane's owner should pick the Dane up in her arms.

Since writing her earlier volume, Darlene has come to several important new conclusions about small dogs. One is that she is now adamantly opposed to any sort of choke or prong collar for them. (She opposes chokes and prongs for all dogs, actually, though she does say that a Martingale is OK for an Italian Greyhound "since they can slip their collars so easily because of that needle nose.") She was against aversive training before but now is even more averse to it. Darlene endorses positive training methods including operant conditioning (clicker training) and lure and reward training. She says: "I don't believe in yelling, jerking collars, or all of that alpha garbage and growly voice stuff. The dog is smart enough to know that you are not another dog!" Most importantly, those choke collars can easily make a small dog's trachea collapse.

Darlene has also learned that "it is very hard to turn a dog around who hasn't been properly socialized within the first twelve weeks of life. Worst case scenario: it leads to fear aggression." She also is more concerned about health issues stemming from the mania for ever smaller dogs and "the myth of the 'teacup.'" "Teacup," she reminds us, "is a marketing term used by backyard and commercial breeders as well as by puppy mills." Darlene now stresses even more than she did before the importance of people doing their homework, learning which diseases can occur in the breed they want and then asking the breeder what is being done in his/her breeding program to eliminate those health problems. According to Darlene, people should also ask to see health clearances for tests done before breeding. As some health problems don't show up until the dog is older, "you should receive a health guarantee to a reasonable age." Darlene adds that "you have to do your part to give your dog a healthy, complete and balanced diet, regular vet visits, and exercise. I recommend Canine Musical Freestyle as a safe and fun sport for all dogs of all sizes." (www.worldcaninefreestyle.org).

It's vital to understand that you can't approach a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel as you might a Dalmation or a Berger Allemand. Pardon my French; that means German Shepherd. As Darlene says: "Everything is gigantic to a little dog. People should move slowly and not swoop down on them." She advises: "Present your hand in a fist and let the little dog sniff your knuckles and then gently begin to scratch under the chin. You can slowly move around to scratch and pat behind the ears. But don't thump the dog and don't bring your hand down on the dog's head! People say that little dogs cringe and shake. Well, so would you if something bigger than your whole body were about to come down on your head!"

If small dogs have a dirty little secret it would be that they generally take longer to housetrain than larger ones. "Usually the ones who live with a housetrained dog do better," says Darlene, "Dogs are great observational learners – but they still need the owner there to praise and reward. My book contains a chapter devoted to this subject that will help small dogs' humans to have success in housetraining. The breeds that are closer to the 20 pound mark are generally easier to housetrain, but there are many variables; people should be consistent and have patience in any case. I think people should be prepared for the worst and be happily surprised if they find they have one who trains quickly and is reliable at an earlier age." In other words, if you can't stand the poop, get out of the kennel.

I asked Darlene which forms of indulgence and pampering of small dogs she considers beneficial for both dogs and humans. "Time spent together, good grooming – whether you do it or have it professionally done. Since little dogs lose body heat more quickly than larger dogs, they'll need a warm sweater or coat in the winter, and a tee shirt on cool days or evenings; there's no reason those things can't be cute. What I consider essential is the dog/human bond. The time you spend bathing, brushing and combing the dog can be a sort of zen-like time that helps you bond and relax together. Touch massage falls into this category, too." It goes without saying that the best trick of all is teaching your dog to do your hair in the morning.

Darlene also approves of some of the more extravagant forms of pup pampering. "Regular therapeutic swimming sessions that are usually done after a sports injury are great. Buying a dog bed that matches your décor hurts nobody, although dogs usually prefer their owner's bed or any bed other than their own!"

On the other hand, Darlene doesn't like to see a dog treated like "a pseudo-human baby." She doesn't, for example, approve of "those carriers where the dog's feet are hanging down. That can't be comfortable or healthy."

Here's how Darlene sums up her work in small dogs, big hearts. "There's a lot of practical information in this book. It includes the latest and best training and behavior tips that will allow you to have a wonderful companion for life. I included lots of great health and nutrition advice, as well as suggestions of where to buy things for your small dog and how to travel with it. The Breed by Breed section describes many breeds' personalities as well as the health issues you need to understand to help you make a selection and care for your dog long-term."

Darlene's book is most engagingly written. The love with which she approached the task is as evident as her expert knowledge of the subject. The photos accompanying the text are heartwarming. This book has little dogs covered from Affenpinschers to Xoloitzcuintli. That's the national dog of Mexico, which had the starring role in Julie Taymor's movie "Frida."

Darlene reports that years ago her mother taught her Yorkie to meow. That certainly gives one paws for thought, don't it? The Yorkie sensed that Darlene didn't care for the meowing so would sometimes give her a sly look and then meow (earning praise from his "grandma.") So far, that hasn't led to anybody saying "What's the matter; dog got your tongue?"

Darlene maintains an animal-lover's website at http://www.darlenearden.com/.