Sophie Morris: Lessons in life that only a pet can give us

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The Independent Online

I don't recall any of the three Airedale Terriers I had while I was growing up displaying the "food-related aggression" from which new government advice says we must protect our dogs. What is food-related aggression, anyway? Is it that feeling you get when you've got your heart set on the ribeye only to be told that the gentleman on your left has just ordered the last one? Or the frustration encountered when you've gone to the trouble of pulling your boots and raincoat on over your pyjamas and stepped out into the night, only to find the corner shop has run out of Minstrels?

No: it's the low growl dogs emit if you disturb them while they're eating. In dogspeak, this means: "Come back in seven seconds, by which time I'll have seen away this bowl of bland dry biscuits and be ready to accept titbits from the kitchen table."

The chances any of my dogs remembered the trauma of being tickled between the ears while finishing their food are, I feel, quite slim. Though I hold my hands up: I never actually asked them. Yet we could all be in trouble for slipping dogs these treats under the new Animal Welfare Act, which sets out guidelines for pet owners.

At first glance, the suggestions appear proscriptive to say the least, if not somewhat patronising and leaning towards the sort of advice eager brownies and beavers should receive on receipt of their first pet hamster.

"Avoid walking your dog during the hottest part of the day," is one of my favourites. I shall remember this, when I emigrate to Australia. "If a dog eats too much and exercises too little it will put on weight." Much like me, then. "Avoid feeding your dog from your plate as this can encourage your dog to beg." Is begging an unattractive quality in a dog? Does asking for food instead of waiting to be fed damage a dog's self-esteem? "Your cat should not be too fat or too thin." In the eyes of Fern Britton, is that, or Cheryl Cole?

"It may be safer to keep cats indoors at night, when risk to their health and welfare could be greater." Because cat lovers don't love cats for their independent, curious and slightly wild streaks, and cats don't enjoy prowling their territories at night time, seeking out furry or feathered snacks and warning off other feline intruders.

Still, if many of the guidelines appear a little dumb, it is possible there are first-time donkey owners out there unaware of the animal's special "socialisation needs".

Jokes aside, there would be no need for such a code of conduct if people weren't mistreating their pets. In 2006 there were 1,700 convictions for cruelty to animals. A large number of these cases involved what the RSPCA terms "shocking" cruelty. Non-adherence to the new guidelines under consultation will not be a crime in itself, but could be a deciding factor in ruling on an animal welfare offence.

There are plenty of things we can be taught when looking after an animal, but the caring bit should be instinctive, like with a child. In fact, several of the recommendations could have been drawn up to cover caring for children – in particular, those warning against overfeeding. Giving your toddler the odd treat does not amount to cruelty, but pumping them so full of processed rubbish that they grow too fat for their classroom chair has the ring of abuse to me.

I trust Barack Obama has warned his little girls that the puppy he's promised them is for life, and not just the White House.

Don't forget to empathise, Myleene

How fitting that Channel 4 has decided to replace the 37-year-old Nicky Hambleton-Jones, the presenter of makeover show Ten Years Younger, with Myleene Klass, who at 30 is all of seven years younger than the woman she succeeds.

We can't blame ageism in this instance. Hambleton-Jones, whose own dressing-up box is packed with harsh colours and sexy secretary tailoring – Karen Millen circa 1995 – has no authority to advise others. Her stock-in-trade is to humiliate and undermine each victim, subjecting them to extensive and agonising surgical procedures. She missed Gok Wan's audience-pleasing trick by a mile, which is to at least attempt to make women feel good in the skin they're in.

Klass, a former model, is not that well placed herself to empathise with the women who seek Ten Years Younger's help, but at least she is a fresh face and voice, a not-untalented presenter, and she appears capable of dressing herself before pronouncing on others' wardrobe malfunctions.

Would Zephaniah refuse another honour?

The Department of Media and Culture has begun the consulting process to find a new Poet Laureate to take over from Andrew Motion when he steps down from his 10-year sentence next May. The Poetry Society and the Arts Council are among the organisations whose opinions are being sought on the matter.

Benjamin Zephaniah and Carol Ann Duffy share joint pole position at present, I hear, which would be the first time anyone black or female would hold the post.

The change we need? Maybe so, especially since Motion's term has been so uninspired and uninspiring, some rap verse for Prince William's 21st proving his most memorable work, if for none of the right reasons.

Neither Zephaniah nor Duffy have come out to say they would accept the job if offered it. As Zephaniah refused an OBE in 2003, rejecting the honour as a legacy of colonialism and in protest at certain activities of the British government, such as the war with Iraq, we can assume his enthusiasm to accept a post as the Queen's own scribe will be limited, if anyone is short-sighted enough to suggest it in the first place. After all, his poem "Bought and Sold" explored how artists compromise their work by accepting honours, and he wrote it before he was put forward as an ideal candidate for the OBE.

Another name bubbling to the surface is that of Ian McMillan, the Yorkshire poet and broadcaster. McMillan was the first person to become poet-in-residence to a football club and still composes for his local team, Barnsley FC. He could give the Laureateship a bit of kick.