Small Wonders

By Gina Spadafori - Pet Columnist


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.

Copyright 2006 Universal Press Syndicate, used with permission. Gina Spadafori is a syndicated columnist and author. Column archives, books and blog are at PetConnection.com.