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It's a dog's life for Paris and her pet Chihuahua

PARIS Hilton has a lot to answer for, and we're not just talking about her dodgy pop music or the short-skirt-and-no-knickers trend.

It's her taste in toy dogs that has really caught on over here, causing every wannabe society blonde to sport an outsize handbag on one arm, and a tiny cuddly dog on the other.

As a nation, we have gone mad for dogs. First it was Roy Keane and his best friend Triggs, the Labrador retriever who acted as conduit of Keano's emotions during the Saipan saga.

Then You're A Star judge Amanda Brunker accompanied by whippet Bob, along with publisher John Ryan and Winky, the one-eyed chihuahua, collared the Late Late Show for a pet special.

More recently Gerry Ryan, Linda Martin, Twink, Ray D'Arcy, Caroline Morahan and Trevor Sargent have all expressed devotion to their four-legged friends.

Ownership of mini-breeds like Miz Hilton's Chihuahua, Tinkerbelle has exploded, along with Maltese, Bichons and Shih Tzus, all of which are high-maintenance in inverse proportion to their size.

The downside is that as dog ownership becomes just another area of aspiration and ostentation, instead of rehousing abandoned animals, we are now more likely to splurge on something that can trace its ancestry right back to the Ark.

Where a rescued dog will cost about €30 in administration fees, and will probably be grateful to boot, pure breeds cost anything up to €1000, and can be spoilt rotten.

Elizabeth Furlong has been breeding Bichon Frisés for the last 15 years. A dog breeder for 50 years, she began with German Shepards, Dobermans and even Irish Wolfhounds but gradually followed the market and moved into toy breeds.

"Life is so fast now, and toy dogs are better adapted to the modern lifestyle," she says. "People don't necessarily have time to take a dog for long walks, or space to keep it in.

"Bichons can be kept in apartments and don't need to be walked once they have access to a garden. Also, they are placid, with an adorable temperament."

Furlong breeds just one litter a year, and often that means only one or two puppies (a German Shepard for example might produce ten or 11).

Partly due to the limited supply, prices start at about €500 and can range right up, "depending on the blood lines."

A Maltese puppy from a reputable breeder will cost about €850, while Papillons start at about €700.

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Pedigree pups from good homes are usually sold at about 10 weeks, and will have been registered and micro-chipped. There are a number of intensive puppy farms (though many are currently the subject of official investigation) and dogs from such disreputable sources are definitely cheaper, but are best avoided as they may have health, temperment or genetic problems.

The act of buying a show dog is just the first step in the financial commitment stakes.

Quite apart from vets bills - neutering alone is several hundred euro - there is now a brave new world of doggy accessories and grooming to explore.

Dogs and fashion have always gone together. Remember Philip Treacy and his devotion to Mr Pig, a hairless Jack Russell, now sadly-deceased? Alexander McQueen had a similar love-affair with a pug.

Then there's Geri and her Shih-tzu, Harry; Puff Daddy and his fluffy Maltese, even Anna Nicole Smith claimed her closest relationship was with Sugar Pie, a black spaniel of sorts.

No wonder the House of Fayed, otherwise known as Harrods, has jumped on the bandwagon.

For the last three years the jet-set department store has been running Pet-a-Porter, an alterno-fashion show where dogs model day and evening wear by Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and even Chanel.

Over here, try Mutt Ugly, a pet owner's paradise on Charlemont Street, opened last October by Sinead Deegan.

The boutique has cat treats costing about €1 sitting alongside custom-made leather doggy travel cases for €1400.

Then there are swarovsky crystal dog collars for about €25 and a range of hand-made coats from €40.

Now we know why they call it a dog's life . . .

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