It's that time of year. Everyone is all geared up for the holiday season, contemplating that perfect, special gift for the kids or the sweetheart. Classified ads announce puppies "ready for Christmas." And pet stores stock up with cuddly fluff-balls that would look perfect wearing big red and green (or blue and white) bows. The temptation to buy a puppy is there, but I'd like to suggest a better holiday gift than a puppy, or even a promise of a puppy. Give the potential puppy-owner an education. Brian Kilcommons's and Sarah Wilson's 1999 Paws to Consider is excellent food for thought for the person thinking about acquiring a dog.
There are many books that talk about selecting the right dog. Some are gloriously beautiful picture books that contain little information. Some are lengthy texts that contain huge amounts of historical information, esoteric breed "standards," and meaninglessly glowing breed descriptions. It would not be unusual to read a breed description along the lines of, "the Hoover-Hound is a dog of noble bearing, always dignified and circumspect in formal social settings yet in his element among family and friends; he is noted for his loyalty, intelligence, and magnanimous nature." Um, what does that mean? Utterly useless information about breeds abounds. It is particularly difficult to find honest, meaningful, practical descriptions of breeds - real information that real people can relate to and use in actually selecting a dog.
The brilliance of Paws to Consider is not only the information it contains, but the manner in which that information is conveyed. The authors are experienced dog trainers, yet they are first and foremost dog owners themselves. They understand what is important to a regular person who just wants to add a regular pet to their household. They write in an easy, down-to-earth, friendly, completely unpretentious, utterly humorous and entertaining fashion. They are brutally honest and not always flattering in their discussions of breeds or breeders, yet the writing never comes across as haughty or offensive. Reading this book feels like having a friendly conversation with a buddy, a buddy who has been there and done that. A buddy with a deep and abiding love for dogs and reverence for the pet-owner bond.
The book opens with a general discussion of dog ownership, what's required, and whether or not a dog belongs in the reader's life, period. The authors are dog trainers who wrote the book to prevent people from making bad choices, but they acknowledge readily that not everyone needs a dog - any dog - in their life. "Deciding to care for a dog is a serious decision. Dogs are dependent on you for their education, entertainment, health care, and safety. Canine care requires an investment of emotion, energy, cash, and time to do well, yet it is not worth doing any other way."
They examine good and bad reasons to want a dog, and they are quite blunt in their remarks. "'I want (to get a dog to have) something to love me.' We all do, but that is not the reason to get a dog. A dog does not exist to fulfill your emotional needs... Simply housing a dog so it's around when you need it is not enough. You need to teach, play, interact with, schedule your time around, tend to, understand, and love another being on its own terms - separate from you." Sound harsh? Perhaps, but a little reality-testing is a good thing. Better for someone to hear it before they bring home Rover than afterwards.
They examine a dog's needs, from exercise and training down to money and the double-edged sword of an owner's emotional investment. They stress the importance of matching one's dog to their lifestyle, "The bottom line is, Don't fall in love with a picture in a book. That's about as sensible (and successful) as selecting a spouse from a mail-order catalog. Think about how you live, then make an intelligent choice based on what you need. The most beautiful dog in the world is the one that fits into your lifestyle."
They touch on the best time to get a dog, as well as on generalities regarding size, gender, age, and breed types. Unlike traditional breed books that discuss breeds strictly according to AKC classifications (which these authors do as well), Kilcommons and Wilson break breeds down into nine categories that regular people can relate to:
Many breeds appear in more than one category. The beauty of these classifications is the practicality of them. You don't have to be a "dog person" to relate to these categories, and the authors do a tremendous job of presenting the good and bad aspects of all dogs and categories. Rather than simply listing breeds, they explain the positive and negative aspects of the breed, basic physical features like size and coat care/shedding, training and exercise requirements, suitability with children or other pets, and other concerns like bite liklihood and health issues.
I admire the authors' gutsy candor. Here are a few random breed quotes:
"Even a calm (border collie) is not an easy dog. Think of them as sexy little sports cars: responsive, fast, sleek, but as family vehicles, a nightmare waiting to happen."
"What's a 'Poo'? Cock-a-Poo? Yorkie-Poo? Mix anything with a Poodle and you get a Something-Poo... Don't pay through the nose for a mutt with a fancy name."
"We love these dogs dearly, but boy is the Shepherd breed full of neurotic, sickly, unsound, aggressive, shy dogs."
"(Pekingese with) children. Some may be okay with some children, but not our first choice or, frankly, theirs."
Do I agree with everything the authors say? Nope, and I wouldn't expect to. Nonetheless, I agree with much of it. Most of the information in this book remains current and accurate, and even if some specifics are open to dispute, the authors are the first ones to recommend that a potential dog owner check a variety of sources before making an ultimate decision. "These chapters are... two people's experience. This is not gospel, nor is it written in stone. This is just our opinion. Some people will agree, some will not. that's an inevitable outcome of having opinions."
I particularly enjoyed their chapter on how to research and acquire a dog. They talk about how useless most breed books are in presenting honest information, and they encourage potential owners to talk to rescue groups, trainers, vets, and groomers. They gloss over the value of conformation-showing and absolutely stress that buyers seek out breeders who place a priority on health and temperament. Happily, the authors encourage people to adopt older rescue dogs.
All in all, this book is a winner. If you're at all tempted to get that special someone (or perhaps yourself?) a puppy, get this book instead. It's an entertaining read that provides food for thought and good solid advice in down-to-earth language.
Note: This book review was originally published at epinions.com
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