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How much pampering does your pooch really need?
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Weinstein's Golden Retriever, given the choice between a cushy rug inside and the cement outdoors, prefers the cement. So this vet, too, prioritizes safety and cleanliness over froufrou when choosing a kennel. "These upscale opportunities are more so the pet owner doesn't feel guilty that she left her pet in a stainless steel cage while the family enjoys a beach on Hawaii," Weinstein says.

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Only social interaction --such as playtime or doggie daycare -- tends to win experts' approval when assessing value from the dog's view. After all, socialization is a basic essential of a dog's behavioral health. Cut Spot off from interaction with other canines and, like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," he'll eventually start to wig out. Merely seeing or passing other dogs in a park won't do.

"They need to sneak around, snoop and investigate. They need to read messages where other dogs urinated and leave their own scent. They need to sniff each other's rear ends -- normal canine stuff," Nichol says.

Grooming: "Dogs in the wild lived for millions of years without medicated shampoos and massages," Weinstein says. But with domestication comes a new genetic makeup that makes regular brushing, nail trimming and ear cleaning a necessity.

Then there are services such as Vivienne McIntosh's Aussie Pet Mobile, a nationwide grooming service that offers a 15-step spa treatment for Fluffy in the privacy of your driveway. It includes a therapeutic massage, which McIntosh is quick to say "won't cure anything, but it's certainly beneficial to the dog."

Actually, the jury is still out on that conclusion.

On one hand, "I've never seen a dog that got truly upset if you rubbed its back and tummy, and that's massage in many cases," says Weinstein. And by that definition, you can do it for free when you get home. "Do they need a physical massage in the same fashion that you and I might go in for a Swedish massage? How can we assess that? We don't have an ability to measure their pleasure centers and find out what they're getting in terms of benefits."

But vets such as Nichol say that dogs benefit from orthopedic physical therapy after surgery, and older dogs with arthritis find relief from specific massage moves. But he also maintains that dogs with anxiety-related behaviors respond to the general massage stimulation from a groomer. "This stuff has its place," he says. "You can say, 'Oh, it's kinda silly and people do it because they have more money than sense,' but when done properly it can be behaviorally beneficial."

Toys: It's not the number that counts but the material. For instance, breeds such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers possess jaws strong enough to destroy virtually anything they choose -- including brick and drywall -- so a squeaky toy in their mouths becomes a pile of rubber in 30 minutes. Weinstein doesn't even favor rawhide for these "chewy" dogs because it can't hold up long enough to get your money's worth. Brands like Nylabone tend to be one of the few materials strong enough for the job.

"One the other hand, a Chihuahua will walk around with a stuffed animal the same way my daughter walks around with Curious George," says Weinstein.

In this category, size also matters. Big dogs and small toys invite ingestion problems. Weinstein has had to surgically remove golf balls to racquetballs from canine stomachs. One dog even swallowed a tennis ball and turned up DOA on his doorstep. "The lesson is that not every toy is safe for every dog, so look at your dog's nature and lifestyle before spending money," he says.

To really get a bang for your buck, make the dog earn the toy rather than simply leaving it on the floor in easy reach, says Nichol. "Even if you interact with your dog and his toy, if it's on the dog's terms and he doesn't have to earn the privilege, you're missing a benefit," he says. Because it's a dog's nature to be subjugated, toys that ask Buster to work for a treat ward off anxiety problems and the destructiveness those trigger.

So in the end, the purchasing problem comes down to Zawistowski's assessment: "The most important thing to spend on your animal is time."

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Updated: July 7, 2006
 
 
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