- Thinking about your new dog’s age
- Determining the importance of gender and size
- Factoring in energy and temperament
- Identifying signs of a healthy dog
- Picking the perfect puppy
So many adorable dogs are out there, barking and wiggling to get your attention. If only you could take them all home! Of course, you can’t. But you can pick the right dog for you by focusing on exactly what you want and need in a dog, and determining what kind of dog works best in your home and with your lifestyle. The fact that animal shelters are full of dogs is proof that too many people buy dogs who aren’t right for them. This chapter helps you make smart decisions about the issues involved in selecting a dog so that when you do choose yours, you’ll know you’ve considered all the factors.
Sure, you can listen to your heart, but let your brain have the final say.
Puppies Are Precious, but . . .
Just look at that fluffy ball of fuzz, those big innocent eyes, that madly wagging tail! Many people who want to adopt a dog are hoping to adopt a puppy, and that’s no surprise. Puppies can be practically irresistible. Shelters have a much easier time placing puppies than they do older dogs. The downside, however, is that many of these puppies wind up back at the shelter as soon as they hit that difficult adolescent period — when they’re big, rambunctious, and particularly challenging.
Before you insist on a puppy, take a good look at your options. Sometimes breed, size, or temperament is more important than a dog’s age. A chubby, round, yellow Labrador Retriever puppy may be the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, but how will you feel when he grows to 75 pounds of explosive energy and knocks favorite knickknacks off your coffee table with his big tail? Adopting a puppy and adopting an adult dog have distinct advantages and disadvantages, so consider the pros and cons of each before making a decision.
Pros and cons of adopting a puppy
They’re tiny, they’re cute, and they pull at your heartstrings with that ferocious little tug-of-war puppy growl. But do you really want to adopt a puppy?
The pros of puppy adoption include the following:
– Control over exactly when and how well the puppy is socialized and trained, so your puppy learns good behavior early
– An opportunity for you and your puppy to bond right from the beginning
– A fun, playful, adorable companion
– Short-lived high energy that often (but not always) mellows into mature adolescence in one to two years
– A longer amount of time together than if you adopt an older dog
The cons of puppy adoption can saddle you with this stuff:
– A pet with behaviors you don’t like, if you fail to control exactly how well the puppy is socialized and trained.
– The chore of housetraining your puppy, a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating task. If you aren’t consistent with your training, you’ll have puppy puddles and piles to clean up for what seems like forever.
– Chewed up, well, everything. Puppies need to chew . . . a lot. You must provide them with appropriate items to chew and keep things they are not allowed to chew out of reach. If you tend to leave your expensive shoes on your bedroom floor, a puppy may not be right for you.
– A seemingly inexhaustible need for more exercise and stimulation than most adult dogs. Puppies, by nature, are energetic.
– Ill-mannered behaviors. Granted, manners are all human, and puppy behaviors are entirely natural. Even so, in our human world, puppies have no manners whatsoever. They may nip fingers, jump on people, bark at everything, pull on the leash, pick on other pets, dig holes in your yard, try to escape the fence to play with the neighbors, and keep you up at night because they still want to play. You have to teach them everything.
– An uncertain adult appearance. If you adopt your puppy through a shelter or you choose a mixed breed, you can’t be sure of your puppy’s parents and you won’t know what the puppy will look like when it grows up. Many shelter puppies who look like purebreds grow up to look much different as adults.
If you have your heart set on a puppy, check out the tips for picking the perfect one later in this chapter.
Pros and cons of adopting an adult dog
Adult dogs can make absolutely wonderful adopted pets. After adopting a puppy, many people decide never to do that again and vow to adopt only adult dogs in the future.
Many adult dogs in shelters are well-behaved family pets who lost their homes through no fault of their own. Some dogs are there because their owners didn’t know how to manage perfectly natural dog behavior. Others are there because their owners got divorced, moved, or died. Others are there because they’re no longer the cute puppies to which their owners first were attracted. The most common age for dogs to be surrendered to shelters is in the difficult adolescent phase and early adulthood, usually between about 9 months and 2 years, when dogs typically develop some challenging behaviors backed up by a full-grown size. Instead of working on these issues with training and socialization, pet owners often just give up.
Before you decide that you want an adult dog, consider the advantages and disadvantages within the context of your lifestyle. An adult dog may be the perfect fit for you because it may already be
– Housetrained: Many dogs housetrain young and never forget.
– Finished teething: Adult dogs typically don’t chew and nip the way puppies do, although exceptions do exist.
– Well versed in basic training: They know how to walk on a leash, obey basic cues like “Sit” and “Come,” and generally behave appropriately in the house.
– Well socialized: Many adult dogs are friendly and accustomed to different kinds of people and situations.
– More laid back: Adult dogs aren’t quite as wild and energetic as puppies.
Dogging it indoors or out
Before you choose a dog, think about where you’re planning to keep him. Certain breeds must live indoors because they suffer in extreme temperatures. Others adapt to virtually any weather, as long as they have adequate shelter.
But all dogs do better living inside with the family at least part of every day. Bonding is even easier when your pet is your shadow by day and your foot warmer at night.
– Almost finished with adolescence: Although adolescent dogs initially may have high energy, they often (but not always) mellow out, especially if you provide plenty of outlets for that energy.
– More adaptable: Adult dogs are usually willing to bond closely with anyone who takes them in, feeds them, and gives them a home and some attention.
Many people claim that adult dogs they adopted from shelters and rescue groups seem to know that they’ve been given a second chance. These pet owners say they get a strong sense of gratitude from their dogs.
– A quick study: Adult dogs typically learn quickly and enjoy training sessions as a fun way to spend time with you. You can teach old dogs new tricks.
– More readily available: Shelters have a harder time placing adult dogs. Adopting one saves an animal who may otherwise never find a home.
Despite all the wonderful aspects of adult dogs, they may present their own challenges. Be aware of these considerations before you decide to adopt one:
– Behavioral problems: Resource guarding — snapping when you try to take away food or treats — is a common problem. Others can include dislike of children or displays of aggression or self-mutilation in response to anxiety.
– Bad habits that take extra training to undo: Examples include excessive barking, digging in the yard, and chewing on shoes.
– A lengthy adjustment period because the dog was in another home for so long: Dogs may mourn lost loved ones or seem depressed.
– Difficulty bonding: Some dogs need to be taught to trust humans again.
– Too short a time in your life: You may have only a few more years with an adult dog. Larger breeds, especially, have life spans of only six to eight years. If your adopted Great Dane is already 4 years old, well, you do the math.
Considering Sex and Size
Just as some shelters have a harder time finding homes for adult dogs than they do for puppies, many have a more difficult time finding homes for male dogs than they do for female dogs. Potential pet owners often say they want a female, a factor that sometimes is even more important to them than breed.
Yet males and females exhibit virtually no consistent difference in behavior. In some breeds, males actually make more affectionate pets, and females are more independent and exhibit a higher drive to work. In other breeds, males tend to be more aggressive and females are more laid back. But even these generalizations have many exceptions. And when pets are spayed or neutered, these differences become even less significant.
Trying to predict a dog’s personality based on gender is impossible. Instead of merely choosing male or female, look at breed, age, grooming needs, and temperament. You may find that your canine soul mate is the opposite sex you thought you wanted.
Likewise, size isn’t always an obvious advantage or disadvantage. A lethargic giant may take up less space than a tiny dynamo dashing from sofa to windowsill to front door and back to sofa. Given proper exercise, even bigger breeds can do just as well in the city as in the country.
Similarly, tiny breeds aren’t necessarily the ideal choice for a family with small tots. In fact, many big dogs have a reputation for being easygoing and patient with children. Large breeds also aren’t as likely to be injured by a slamming door or a toddler teething on an ear. To protect herself, a big dog can simply get up and move; she doesn’t need to retaliate with teeth to protect herself.
Keep in mind, of course, that a larger breed can be more difficult to manage simply because of mass weight. Nudging a Komondor over a car seat is a little harder than shoving even the most defiant toy breed.
Choosing a Pooch to Match Your Pep
As you’re thinking about what kind of dog you want, consider your own level of activity: Are you more like a marathon runner or a couch potato? Choose a dog with an energy level similar to your own so you can enjoy activities together.
Beware of dog
Statistics show that people, homes, and businesses with doggie doorbells are less frequently victims of break-ins and attacks. Think about whether you want a dog who will simply announce visitors or one who will protect your home. And remember, if you’re looking for protection, your choice isn’t limited to large breeds. Dwarf or giant, dogs make a lot of noise — yaps, growls, and booming barks serve as canine alarm systems. For would-be burglars, shunning the dog and moving on to the next place is simpler than wading into an unknown situation. After all, little teeth can hurt as much as big ones.
The amount of activity a dog requires depends not on his size, but on his attitude. Some of the giant breeds, for instance, are happiest when snoozing in the sun, whereas high-energy breeds demand vigorous daily exercise. Frisky dogs are more in tune with hikers than 80-year-old quilting devotees.
Whatever your hobby may be, you can find a breed of dog eager to join the fun. Some dogs are content to lie on the sofa; others require regular, exhaustive exercise. (Also see Book Meet the Breeds
for descriptions of specific breeds’ needs.)
Factoring In Temperament
Many shelters do temperament testing on the animals they hope to offer for adoption. Testing gives them a clear idea of the kind of home that best suits the pet and enables them to separate dogs who won’t be able to thrive in a home because of bad temperament. Temperament testing can be as simple as checking a dog’s behavior with other dogs and people, giving her basic commands to see whether she has had previous training, and testing her with cats and children.
Some shelters do more intensive temperament testing that follows specific methods recommended by certain trainers. Ask your shelter what type of temperament testing it has done and whether you can read the test results.
Be wary of a shelter that refuses to let you read the results, because it may be trying to hide the fact that it doesn’t do any temperament testing. The dog may be perfectly adoptable, but you want to know as much as possible about the animal you plan to adopt.
Evaluating a dog’s temperament is extremely important. It can spell the difference between a loving relationship with a trustworthy, trainable family pet and disaster in the form of injured people, angry neighbors, lawsuits, eviction, and a death sentence for the dog. A pet dog with a bad temperament is a serious liability. Bad temperament isn’t the same as behaviors you don’t like, such as failing in housetraining or barking too much. Dogs with bad temperaments cannot be trusted around humans or other pets because they are either aggressive or so painfully shy or unsocialized that their quality of life suffers and they can’t form healthy relationships with people. Remember, shy dogs often bite out of fear.
Beyond bad temperaments are variable temperaments. Some dogs are outgoing; some are reserved. Some are vocal, pushy, and assertive; some are shy, retiring, and quiet. Temperament is akin to personality and comes in many different guises. Understanding a potential pet’s temperament — and your own — helps you choose a dog you can live with.
Not everyone agrees that accurately analyzing the canine temperament is even possible in just a few minutes or after just a few meetings. Determining a dog’s temperament is never quick and easy. It involves a careful process of observing and interacting with the animal. Some signs of bad temperament are obvious — growling, snarling, constantly quaking with fear — but many signs are not. Other aspects of temperament unfold slowly as the dog becomes more comfortable in your presence. Before you adopt a dog, arrange several extended visits. The more comfortable the dog is around you, the more her real temperament will come out.
Exploring breed temperament
Assessing the temperament of any given dog is tricky, at best. Complicating matters are temperaments that once were accepted as part of a dog’s breed but now are no longer suitable for pets. For example, working sled dogs, hound dogs, guardian dogs, and herding dogs needed extremely high levels of energy and endurance, an instinct to run long distances to track down game, strong territorial instincts, or instincts for nipping at heels to keep livestock in one place. If you’re adopting one of these dogs, you need to know about these breed traits.
The breed or mix of breeds in a dog has a big impact on that dog’s temperament and physical traits, such as his coat and size. Mixed breeds that have some sporting dog in them (like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shorthaired Pointers) are relatively large and have high energy. Labrador Retriever mixes (see Figure 3-1) are among the most common dogs in animal shelters, often because people expect a placid temperament but are overwhelmed with the activity needs of a younger Lab or Lab mix.
Figure 3-1: Lab mixes make devoted, intelligent, trainable companions as long as you give them a lot of exercise.
Knowing a dog’s natural tendencies is an important key to matching it with an individual or family. You can’t expect a Border Collie to act like a couch potato or a Jack Russell Terrier not to bark; it simply isn’t in their nature. If you do, you’re just setting yourself up for failure and your dog up for disappointment.
Ask the shelter or rescue group for help in determining the breed or mix of the animal you’re thinking about adopting. Most shelters and rescue groups label dogs as a breed or breed mix to give you an idea of what you can expect. Consider this information as a guideline for helping you choose a dog, but remember that no test can predict or guarantee exact behavior a few months down the road. Some general trends in breed temperament include the following, but remember that many exceptions exist for every rule:
– Sporting breeds: Retrievers, Pointers, and Spaniels are high energy and need plenty of activity, but they’re generally easier than many other breeds to train.
– Large working breeds: Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, and Boxers tend to be territorial and protective. They need to be thoroughly socialized to keep them from becoming aggressive.
– Terriers: Jack Russell Terriers, Fox Terriers, Westies, and Schnauzers are high energy and bark a lot. They like to dig and jump, and can rarely be deterred from chasing small furry animals.
– Hounds: Beagles, Dachshunds, and Greyhounds follow scents or moving targets without regard to you, traffic, or anything else. They are independent and can be difficult to train.
– Northern breeds: Siberian Huskies and Malamutes are extremely high energy, independent, and notoriously difficult to train. They are great at sports like sled pulling but can become destructive without enough mental and physical challenge.
– Toy breeds: Chihuahuas, Shih Tzu, and Maltese tend to bark a lot and can be prone to shyness (as a protective mechanism caused by their diminutive size) or aggression when they’re unsocialized or overly protected. See Figure 3-2 for an example of a toy breed mix.
– Herding breeds: Border Collies, Shelties, and Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent and trainable. They need a challenging job and plenty of exercise, or they can become destructive. Some herding breeds tend to nip at heels to keep children, other pets, or anyone else in the herd.
Figure 3-2: Small mixed breeds like this Miniature Pinscher/Pug cross probably have toy breed and/or terrier in their genetic mix.
For more information about breed characteristics, check out Book Meet the Breeds
Understanding the basics of temperament
So how do you know what’s good or bad about a dog’s temperament?
First, observe how the dog acts in the shelter or foster home. Is she active or laid back? Does she seem nervous or calm? Does she follow people or stay closely focused on them? Or is she more concerned with doing her own thing, exploring independently, or relaxing as if deep in thought?
Next, observe the dog as you interact with her. Is she interested in you or relatively indifferent? Does she try to engage you in active play and cuddle with you, or does she try to avoid you? Does she readily accept petting, or does she shy away? Does she jump all over you, or does she stand nicely, waiting to see what you do next?
Observing these behaviors takes time and effort, so don’t expect to be able to immediately adopt a dog after your first meeting, especially if you have any reservations about the dog’s temperament. Spend several “get acquainted” sessions with the dog to gain a more accurate feel for her individual personality. If you know your dog’s breed or can guess what breeds may have contributed to her mix, you can research the typical temperaments for which each breed is known and compare them to the way your potential pet acts.
Although every dog has a unique personality, a few red flags can signal temperament problems that can become difficult to manage in a pet situation. As you watch how a candidate for adoption responds to the world, look for the following warning signs:
– Extreme shyness: A dog with a good pet temperament doesn’t act fearful and refuse to let you touch her. Hiding, cowering, crying, and flinching at your touch are bad signs. Extremely shy dogs may live stressful lives, suffer from ill health, and never really bond with their owners. They can also bite out of fear.
– Aggression: A serious temperament flaw, aggression puts many dogs into the unadoptable category. Signs of aggression include teeth baring, growling, lunging, nipping, snapping, biting, and chasing. Aggression can be caused by extreme fear, an overdeveloped sense of dominance, a lack of trust for humans, past abuse, or a congenital bad temperament.
Avoid any dogs who show signs of aggression toward children or small pets. If you do decide to adopt a dog who shows aggressive tendencies, be prepared to provide plenty of targeted training with the help of a professional who specializes in overcoming aggressive behavior problems. Don’t take on this type of project if you have children or if children frequently visit your house.
– Hyperactivity: Many dogs, especially puppies and adolescents, have high energy and require a lot of exercise and interaction. Such an energy level is normal. Dogs who are truly hyperactive usually are so high energy that they rarely calm down and are virtually uncontrollable. They have a hard time focusing on you, listening to you, or interacting with you even after you’ve spent several hours with them. Pet owners will have a hard time fulfilling their exercise needs or training them.
Discerning the difference between a high-energy dog and a hyperactive dog can be difficult at first. Some dogs are hyperactive in adolescence and calm down when they’re older, but you probably won’t be able to tell whether this situation will be true for your potential pet. Some breeds naturally are active, such as sporting dogs like Retrievers and Pointers and herding dogs like Border Collies and Shelties. Others got so little attention for so long that they simply are frantic to get any attention they can from you. Neither of these cases is a sign of a hyperactive temperament. So before you cross these dogs off your list, remember that many dogs just need a loving home, plenty of exercise, and some good old-fashioned attention.
These general observations can probably give you a basic sense of a dog’s temperament, but you also need to hear what shelter or rescue workers have observed about the dog you’re considering. They’ve probably interacted much longer and more intensively with the dog than you have and thus can offer you some good insights.
Go-getters, chill-outers, wait-and-seers
By observing the dog’s temperament, you can begin to get a sense of the dog’s personality. He may be outgoing or shy, self-confident or needy, active or sedentary, social or reserved. These various personality traits can help you determine whether you and the dog are a good match:
– The go-getters: These dogs are always on the move, always excited about the next new game, project, or travel opportunity. They relish the unfamiliar adventure. Go-getters love to hike, run, and play sports. Depending on the breed or breed combination, they enjoy engaging in high-energy dog sports like agility, flyball, canine freestyle, rally, dock jumping, earthdog, disk sports, water retrieving, tracking, and hunting tests. They’re active and energetic, great matches for people who lead active, physical, athletic lifestyles.
– The chill-outers: Although dogs tend to be at their most active as puppies and adolescents, some individual dogs are more laid back. Like some people, they tend not to get riled up. Instead, they’re typically adaptable and easygoing, and they prefer hanging out or cuddling with you on the couch to going for a 5-mile run. Sure, they need exercise and enjoy a rousing game of fetch the same as the next pooch, but they generally are less likely to run you ragged. This canine personality is perfect for the more sedentary, stay-at-home type of pet owner who wants a companion more than a four-legged dynamo who’s bouncing off the walls from boredom.
– The wait-and-seers: These dogs like to hang back a little until they’re sure about what’s going on. Rather than plunging into the next new event, they’re more hesitant. Whether pausing until they recognize something familiar or waiting for the go-ahead from their keeper, these dogs are more reserved. They don’t typically dash up to a stranger with tail wagging. They may wait patiently or even stiffen and be on guard until they’re more sure about the new person.
Guardian breeds, with their long history of serving as watchdogs to owner and property, especially tend to be wait-and-seers. Some toy dogs also react this way, perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation. (When you weigh 4 pounds, you have to be careful who you tangle with!) These cautious, reserved dogs make admirable and intelligent pets, and they’re excellent companions for people who can spend time with them because they typically bond closely to one or two people. If well socialized, they can be trusted to act appropriately when around people, without nipping or growling when someone friendly tries to approach you or them.
Regardless of the dog’s personality, look for a type of pet that you can deal with and relate to. Just as in human relationships, some personalities mesh well together; others clash. The dog-human team that meshes has a strong foundation for building a relationship.
Thinking about Health and Longevity
Dogs, like people, are living longer. New technology, better nutrition, and genetic testing of parents can help increase the life span of puppies. Indoor living, routine vet care, and canine laws (no more dogs running loose to be poisoned by garbage, squashed by cars, attacked by more powerful animals, or shot by angry neighbors) are helping us enjoy dogs longer. Many dogs live a dozen years.
It may seem odd to be asking about life expectancy before you even decide about a pup, but you can’t change your mind after you’ve given your heart to a dog. Just as heart problems or high blood pressure and other diseases can run in family lines, certain canine problems can affect breeds or families (see next section). You can find a lot of information on doggie healthcare in Book Dog Nutrition and Health
. Book Meet the Breeds
, on breeds, also contains some health-related information.
If you get your dog from a breeder, ask the ages of her oldest dogs. This information will give you an idea of how long you can expect yours to live.
Dogs never live long enough. Whenever we lose them, it’s always too soon. But knowing their life expectancy prepares us better for the inevitable. As a rule, most small breeds outlive larger ones (although teeny-tiny isn’t necessarily better); giants have the shortest life span. Within a breed, however, some lines can become canine centenarians.
Generally, old-age symptoms occur as follows:
- Small: Qualify as senior citizens at age 13 or 14
- Medium: Earn their AARC (retired canines) card at age 11
- Large: Usually slow down by age 10
- Giant: Often near retirement by age 7 or 8
Any dog can become ill or develop an anomaly, and it isn’t always predictable. To increase your chances of having a healthy pet, research breeds you like. Talk to a veterinarian about breed dispositions. Ask other owners. And remember that many shelter dogs can live just as long as purebreds. The bottom line: A knowledgeable buyer has a better chance of finding and raising a healthy pet.
Signs of a healthy dog
No matter what age, size, sex, or breed you’re looking for, the health of the dog you’re considering is one of the most important factors to evaluate before you adopt. Although many adopted dogs have minor health issues that are easily resolved — a skin irritation, an ear infection, or minor arthritis — sound health keeps basic vet bills at a minimum. If you adopt a dog with serious health problems such as chronic kidney trouble, heartworms, glaucoma, or heart disease, the vet bill can quickly skyrocket. Maybe you’re willing to take on that expense for the sake of an ailing pet, but unless you’re specifically prepared to adopt a dog with special medical needs, adopting a healthy dog probably is one of your top priorities.
Fortunately, most shelters and rescue groups have dogs checked by veterinarians and treated for any health issues before making them available for adoption. If you want to adopt a dog who has a minor health problem such as ear mites or a skin rash, you can ask the shelter to have these issues treated first. Generally, shelters may not have the resources for such treatment, but if the shelter’s vet overlooked something, it may be willing to take care of the treatment for you. You can expect the shelter to have records of all vaccinations, dewormings, pest-control measures, tests, medications, and other medical diagnoses or treatments that were administered during the dog’s stay at the shelter. In some cases, the dog’s previous owner may be another source of information, providing medical records or at least the name of the vet who previously cared for the dog.
Beyond written documents, you can tell a great deal about a dog’s health just by looking. When you evaluate a shelter or rescue dog, look for the signs of bright, vibrant health described in the following sections.
Bright eyes and bushy tails
When first examining a dog, look for a few obvious signs of good health, including the following:
– Bright eyes: Eyes really do need to be bright and clear, with no cloudiness or discharge. Dogs older than 5 or 6 years may have slight eye cloudiness caused by progressive hardening of the lenses; this cloudiness appears as a barely detectible blue in the pupils and eventually appears gray. Lens hardening is normal for older dogs, but milky, opaque lenses are a sign of cataracts that cause blindness and require expensive surgery. Some breeds —Poodles, Shih Tzu, Maltese, and other white or light-colored dogs — tend to have tear stains, which are not usually a sign of ill health; they can even be remedied with some special products. However, a thick, gooey discharge and redness or irritation in a dog’s eyes may be a sign of an eye infection that requires medication.
– Tight eyelids: Eyelids should fit tightly around the eye and not hang loose, except in the case of loose-skinned, droopy-faced dogs like Bloodhounds and Bassett Hounds. Some dogs have entropion, a genetic condition in which the eyelid curls inward, irritating the cornea. A similar condition, called ectropion, causes the lower eyelid to curl outward, hanging and enabling debris to become trapped under the lid. These conditions are fixed with surgery, but they need to be addressed.
– Discharge-free noses: The dog’s nose should be free of any discharge, and the dog should not be wheezing or coughing. These symptoms can signal a respiratory infection or other problems. A cold, wet nose isn’t necessarily a barometer of good health — and a cold, wet, oozing nose is certainly not a sign of good health.
– Polished ivories: Take a look at those teeth. They should be white, clean, and mostly free of tartar buildup. If they aren’t, you need to do something about it. Clean teeth are important because dental bacteria can travel through the bloodstream, infecting the dog’s heart, causing heart disease, and decreasing life span. A vet can professionally clean teeth with a lot of tartar while the dog is under anesthesia. Generally, this procedure is safe, but anesthesia can be risky for some breeds and for older dogs (not as risky as letting periodontal disease progress). Dental cleaning also can get pricey.
– Clean, infection-free ears: Ear infections, usually caused by yeast or bacteria, are common in dogs, especially ones who have been wandering outside for extended periods and dogs with floppy ears. Even dogs with short, pricked ears can get ear infections because the ears are wide open to the introduction of bacteria. Another common ear problem is ear mites. Signs that a dog has an ear infection or mites include scratching, head shaking, and pawing at the ears. Ear infections must be treated by a vet but usually are easy to resolve.
A dog’s coat — whether short, tight, smooth, long, flowing, glamorous, bristly, crispy, or wiry — is her crowning glory. The condition of her coat can also be an important indicator of her overall health. Many health problems manifest in the skin and coat.
Parasites like fleas, ticks, and mange mites can result in rashes, allergic reactions, and massive hair loss and sores, including red, inflamed, painful areas called hot spots. Parasites also can transmit serious and even fatal diseases. Skin infections — common in animals that are injured while wandering — can be caused by staph or other bacteria, or a wound that becomes infected. Likewise, immune system problems can cause dull coats, hair loss, and skin problems.
Any of the following skin-and-coat conditions can indicate a health problem that needs to be addressed:
– Patches of missing hair: Even small patches of missing hair can signal a skin infection that requires treatment. Large patches can indicate mange, caused by tiny skin mites.
– Signs of fleas: You may see tiny black specks — flea dirt — or the little brown hopping bugs themselves.
– Ticks: Ticks can be as tiny as pinheads or, when attached to the skin, can be swollen with blood to the size of acorns.
– Signs of mites: Mites are tiny black bugs — smaller than fleas — that you may not be able to see. Signs of mites include itching, ear irritation, red scaly patches, rashes, and hair loss. Demodex and Sarcoptic mites are microscopic. Cheylatella mites look like tiny white dander. You can see ear mites if you look closely down in the ear canal.
– Hot spots — red, itchy, inflamed, weeping wounds caused by excessive scratching: The most common cause of hot spots is allergic reaction to fleabites, food, or other environmental irritants, or an irritated or infected injury. Although they’re usually not serious, hot spots are uncomfortable for the dog and can be difficult to resolve because the dog will keep scratching and licking the wound.
– Dull, thin coat: A dull coat can signal diseased skin. Keep in mind, however, that this symptom also can be a sign of something as normal as a seasonal coat change or post-delivery hair loss (in some breeds, the female loses much of her coat after having a litter of puppies). If coat changes signal a serious disease, such as hypothyroidism, a veterinarian must treat it.
– Lumps or bumps in or underneath the skin: These afflictions may be cysts or tumors, either simple to remove or cancerous.
The rear view
Just what is under that tail? Take a look. A dog’s rear end should be clean and free of discharge, with no signs of irritation or infection. Dogs with worms sometimes have infected rears, and in some cases, tiny worms are visible around the anus. If you get a chance, take a peek at the dog’s stool (just don’t do it right before lunch); some worms are visible in the stool. The stool also should be firm. Loose, very dark, or bloody stool can signify a problem with worms or other intestinal conditions.
Puppies commonly are infected by parasitic worms in utero and, if not treated, can carry these worms into adulthood. Medication can resolve problems with worms. Likewise, newly admitted dogs commonly get temporary diarrhea, sometimes with mucus or blood in it, caused by the stress of caging, new noises, loss of family, and dietary changes. This condition usually resolves itself in the first week.
If you see abnormal stool in the cage, tell the staff and ask how long the dog has been in the shelter. If he’s been there longer than a week, ask if a parasite check with a microscope has been done and if the dog has been dewormed.
The great big world: How the dog interacts
A dog’s temperament is crucial in determining health. Dogs who are shy, hesitant, guarded, cowering, or growling and aggressive may actually be in pain or discomfort because of an undetected health problem. Temperament also is an indicator of personality (see the earlier section on temperament), but don’t overlook the possibility that poor health is causing any behavior problem you see.
Although any of the following signs can simply be related to the stress of the environment or the dog’s situation, these factors can look like temperament problems but actually indicate a health problem:
– Cowering or exhibiting extreme shyness, hesitation, or a reluctance to be touched
– Backing away, hiding, or avoiding people and other dogs
– Whining, whimpering, crying, or appearing agitated
– Scratching constantly
– Circling, pacing, panting, or displaying other nervous behavior
– Drooling excessively, especially accompanied by panting
– Growling, nipping, or showing other signs of aggression (No dog behaving aggressively should be offered for adoption, so alert shelter workers if you notice signs of aggression.)
Picking Your Perfect Puppy
You can’t wait to get through all the paperwork. You don’t want to read the information you’ve been given. You just want your puppy — now. Well, you’ll soon have all the time in the world to make a fuss. Keep your enthusiasm in check just a little longer.
Before you bring home the puppy who’ll share your life, take a second to confirm that you’ve covered your bases. Be sure you’re dealing with a reputable source — a good shelter or a reputable breeder. You don’t want to fall in love with a puppy who has health and temperament problems. Before making your final choice, review these good-puppy criteria:
– Be sure you’re getting your puppy at the right age — between her 7-week and 8-week birthdays. Some breeders, especially ones with toy breeds, insist on holding their puppies longer because they’re small and delicate. That’s fine, but only if the breeder has continued to socialize the puppy with people. You want a puppy who can get along with other dogs, but you don’t want one who’s too dog oriented to bond well with you. Age is not as big a concern with a shelter puppy, who has probably been well handled by staff and volunteers.
– Look for a puppy who has been raised as a pet — in the kitchen, ideally. You want a puppy who has heard the normal sounds of living with people from the day she was born — talking, laughter, arguments, the TV, music, and the sound of the dishwasher. Health screenings and good breeding are very important, but so is socialization. Don’t buy a puppy from someone who has raised her in a kennel, barn, or basement. If you don’t know how the puppy has been raised, check out her temperament (see the upcoming “Puppy testing” section).
– Check for signs of good health. Your puppy should see a vet within 24 hours — make a health check a condition of adoption — but you probably can spot obvious signs of disease on your own. Your puppy should be plump and glossy, with eyes, nose, and ears free of any discharge. She should seem upbeat and happy, not listless.
Is a Christmas puppy a good idea?
No. Sure, the image of a beribboned puppy and delighted children on Christmas morning is both endearing and enduring. But humane societies, trainers, veterinarians, and reputable breeders say that Christmas morning is just about the worst time to introduce a puppy to the family. To parents with camera at hand, the scene seems worth the trouble of an energetic ball of fluff rolling around on one of the year’s most hectic days, but it probably isn’t.
Getting a Christmas puppy is okay — if you get one before or after Christmas. Introducing a puppy on Christmas Day is stressful for all concerned: The puppy needs your attention — but so does everything else.
Even if you get your pup before or after the actual holiday, you have some challenges. The first may be finding the right puppy. Many shelters and reputable breeders don’t place puppies right before Christmas because they believe that the time is just too high risk. That leaves you with less-than-ideal sources for your pet.
And consider the problem of socializing and training a puppy in the dead of winter, if snow visits your corner of the universe in December. By the time the snow starts to melt, you could have a half-grown canine terror on your hands.
Giving up that Norman Rockwell moment when your children discover that St. Nick has answered their pleas for a puppy is difficult. But if you want a better chance of still having that pet as a well-loved member of the family at future Christmases, consider this option: Wrap a collar and leash and a dog book for the children and put that under the tree — promise your children that their puppy had to wait to be born but will be with them as soon as she can.
If you still want to get the puppy around a holiday, Easter is better for starting out a puppy. Your camera works just as well then, your children will be just as happy, and your puppy will have a better chance of getting the attention she needs.
If you have questions, ask the seller, and make sure that you’re satisfied with the answers. Above all, don’t let your enthusiasm override your common sense. It’s hard to say no to a puppy, but sometimes you must.
Sometimes a single pup is born to a mother who died in childbirth. Should you avoid such a puppy? That depends on the breeder. A knowledgeable breeder does his best to make up for shortcomings, taking over the role of the mother and, later, giving the puppy exposure to other dogs. Single puppies are often sent to be “adopted” by dogs with puppies close to the same age or are at least given the opportunity to socialize with other puppies after weaning.
If this socialization has been done, you need not have any qualms about adopting such a puppy, but continue to look for as many opportunities as you can to expose your puppy to other dogs as she grows up.
Working with a breeder
If you’ve found a reputable breeder, you may not have much to do when it comes to choosing your puppy. You’ve let the breeder know if you prefer a male or a female and whether you want that puppy to be more than your pet — you’re considering showing him, for example, or entering some other canine competition (more on that in Chapter Best in Show: Showing Your Dog
). Or maybe the litter has puppies of different colors and you have a strong preference. All these factors can narrow your choices dramatically (even when considering a large litter).
The breeder has been narrowing the choices, too. She’s talked with you enough to get a feel for the kind of home you offer, whether you’d be too demanding for a shy puppy or too easy on a bossy one. In the end, you may have a choice between two or three puppies — or maybe just one fills the bill.
This process is about give and take, of course, and you may decide to broaden your selection criteria a little when faced with a squirmy litter of fat, healthy puppies. Suddenly, a black Lab may seem perfect when before only a yellow one would do. The breeder, too, should be open to discussion. Just remember that she has a better idea of the personalities of her puppies — she knows her dogs, after all, and has been living with these pups for weeks. If she suggests that the bold puppy who’s crawling all over your son may not be the best bet for your family, believe her — she probably learned her lesson from an unhappy family in the past.
Although it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll have plenty of puppies to choose from in a litter of Great Danes, that may not be the case if you’re dealing with a toy breed, in which small litters are the norm. You may want to hedge your bets a little by dealing with more than one breeder. The breeder may already have that in mind: Good breeders are active locally and likely will know who else has a litter that may suit you if theirs does not. Just ask.
What if you aren’t dealing with a breeder, you’re not selective about gender, and you couldn’t care less about your puppy’s color or markings? What if you’re offered the pick of any pup you want, not just from one litter, but from a whole shelter? How can you decide?
You test the personalities of your prospective pet. Remember that even though you can find a good puppy anywhere, making the most of any help offered is a good idea. Good breeders and good shelters test their puppies, and many shelters offer adoption counseling. (If you’re dealing with one that doesn’t, what else isn’t top rate?)
Puppy-testing methods vary widely, but the general purpose of testing is the same. The goal is to determine the following:
– A puppy’s level of dominance: How bossy or shy is she? Although a lot of people are inclined to pick the boldest pup of a litter — because she seems to pick them — she’s probably not the best choice for most homes. She may be just the ticket for someone with a great deal of dog-training experience who intends to compete with the dog, but for an average home, a less dominant dog is a better choice. Avoiding the shyest, least dominant puppy (“because she needs us!”) is best, too.
– A puppy’s level of interest in people: Some puppies are more dog oriented or don’t care much about anything at all. A puppy who’s not curious and interested in people, perhaps because of little or no socialization, isn’t a good prospect as a pet. You want a pup who wants to be with you.
– A puppy’s trainability: The goal here is a puppy with the ability to concentrate — as much as any baby can — and absorb information. Avoid a puppy who is so busy bouncing off the walls that she can’t give you even a moment’s attention.
Take each of the puppies you’re thinking about to a safe, secure area away from littermates. Observe how the puppy reacts to the change — tentative exploration is okay, but beware the puppy who’s so terrified that she won’t move. Also look for how busy a puppy is: Playfulness is fine, but full-out go-go-go may be a little too much.
Ideally, you can compare your observations with the observations of others who have looked at these puppies, such as the volunteers and staff at the shelters or the breeder.
Try to see the litter you’re considering more than once. If all the puppies seem lethargic, ask the breeder if you’ve caught them just after eating. Puppies have two speeds, after all: completely on and completely off!
Keep in mind that the puppy who’s probably best for you — after you find the right breed or breed type, locate the right source, and decide between male and female — is “medium” in personality. She may not be the smartest in the litter, but she may be more interested in your point of view than the one who is the smartest. She’s got moxie, but not so much that she’ll drive you crazy. She’s willing to try new things — she’s no shrinking violet — but she’ll like the new things better if you’re with her
Although a particular breeder may always test his puppies at a particular age — 6 weeks, say — you may not have this luxury. Anything in the range of 5 to 12 weeks is okay, but if you’re testing puppies in their 8th week, they may be a little skittish because at this age they’re a little leery of new things. Testing before or after this stage is a better idea.
You can size up a puppy’s personality in several ways, but these exercises are easy for anyone to do:
– Is she interested in people? Put the puppy down facing you. Walk a few steps away, bend over, and call to her. (Bending over makes you less intimidating.) If the puppy seems a little tentative, crouch and open your arms. You’re not ordering the pup — she doesn’t know what you want, after all. You’re trying to see how attracted she is to a nice person. So be nice. Call gently, click your tongue, rattle your keys. The medium puppy you want will probably trot over happily, perhaps after a slight hesitation. The bossy puppy may come over and nip at you, and the shy one may not move except to shiver in terror. The one who doesn’t care a bit about people may go investigate a bug in the corner of the room.
– Does she accept authority? Gently roll the puppy onto her back and hold her there with your hand. The medium pup you’re looking for will fuss a little, settle down, and maybe even lick your hand. Bossy pups usually keep struggling, and the shyest ones generally freeze in terror.
– How does she respond to praise and petting? Praise and petting are integral parts of training and communicating with your dog, so finding a puppy who wants affection enough to earn it is important. Talk to the puppy lovingly and stroke her, but let her decide whether she stays with you — don’t hold her. The medium puppy will probably lick your hands and be glad to stay with you. Rolling over is okay, and don’t be surprised if she urinates a little — called submissive urination, this gesture is kind of a canine compliment, a recognition that you’re top dog. A puppy who bites hard is probably dominant and unsocialized, and the one who wants nothing to do with you probably isn’t people oriented enough. Also stay away from the pup who’s terrified of being touched.
Listen to your head, not your heart. Doing so is really, really hard when you’re in a shelter and thinking the puppy you don’t pick isn’t going to get picked at all. Don’t play the guilt game. Pick a puppy with a temperament that likely will produce a good pet. You’re still saving a life in the case of a shelter puppy, still providing a good home in the case of any puppy. Keep that in mind and pick the best puppy you can.
You may be tempted to take two puppies home, with the grand idea that adopting littermates will keep them from being too lonely while you’re at work and will give them something to do besides pester you. Give this idea a lot of thought. Raising two puppies together means twice the work, twice the craziness, and twice the mess. Most people barely have time to properly socialize and train one puppy, much less two. Plus, two puppies raised together may remain more bonded to each other than they are to you.
If you want two dogs, consider waiting until your puppy is grown to add another puppy. Adding a grown dog at the same time you add a puppy may be okay, but still, puppies are such work that you’re better off getting your little one squared away before you add to your pack.
One of the best ways to start this special relationship properly is to take time off work when your first get your puppy. Call it mutternity leave,
if you like. A week — two is even better — gives you time to get housetraining off to a great start and enjoy your puppy while easing the transition between life with her littermates and life with you. For more on early puppy training, see Book Training-Agility and Shows
Bringing Home a Puppy
The day your puppy comes home is a big step for both of you. He’s leaving his littermates and throwing his lot in with yours. You’re taking on the huge responsibility of raising a dog. You want the transition to be as smooth as possible, yet you want to make sure that from that very first day, you’re laying the groundwork for a wonderful life together. Repeat the following:
I will never let my puppy do anything I wouldn’t let him do as a grown dog.
You’re ready to be a full-fledged puppy parent now, heaven help you. When you go to pick up your puppy, bring towels, both old bathroom ones and the paper kind. Chances are, your puppy will get carsick. (He won’t necessarily be carsick his whole life, though.) Don’t go alone, either. If you’re a single person, have a friend drive so you can hold your puppy. Have a spouse or kids? Take ’em. This moment is one you’ll want to remember.
But don’t let your children fight over the puppy. He’s not a football. One person can hold him, on a towel, for the ride. (Maybe draw lots and make it up to the other kids later.) Remember that you want to lay the groundwork for your puppy from the beginning. Do so with your children, too, by insisting on gentle, respectful handling. If the puppy throws up or makes any other kind of mess, don’t make a fuss. Change to a clean towel, and clean it all up when you get home. When you get home, take your puppy outside and praise him for relieving himself, if he does.
The name game
Naming a dog has to be one of the most delightful parts of getting one. It seems not a year goes by without a new book of dog names being published, including ones that specialize, such as a book on Irish names.
Avoid names that sound like common obedience commands, like Sitka or Stacy. Keep names short — one or two syllables — and easy to pronounce. Using names that are not traditionally for people reinforces the fact that a dog is a dog, after all. Name books are a good start, but don’t forget atlases or special dictionaries such as foreign dictionaries or books of baseball, railroad, gardening, or music terms.
Make your puppy love her name as much as you do by making sure that it has a positive association. Never scream your puppy’s name at her or use it in punishment. The late dog trainer Job Michael Evans used to recommend making up a song with your dog’s name in it and singing the song to her. Commercial jingles are wonderful for this, he said, because they’re catchy and you can put the pet’s name in where the product is mentioned. Yes, it’s silly. But try it anyway.
The name your dog hears — her everyday name — is what fanciers term a call name: That is, it’s what you call your dog. If you have a purebred dog, she’ll have a registered name, too. You get 28 letters and spaces with the American Kennel Club to come up with a registered name for your pet. If you choose a name someone else has already chosen, the AKC issues it along with a number to distinguish your dog’s name from the others, so unless you want your Collie to be the AKC’s Lassie 897,042, use all those spaces to come up with a middle name or two, something sure to be unique.
Puppy’s first night
Your puppy will probably be so overwhelmed by the new sights, sounds, smells, and attention that he won’t much miss his littermates and his old home. Everyone will want to hold the puppy and play with him; that’s fine, but remember that he’s still a baby and gets worn out quickly. He needs to sleep, but he may not eat on that first day. He has a lot to get used to — don’t worry about it much. Let him explore.
Puppies aren’t stuffed toys, and you must help your children realize that. Small children — especially kids under 5— can’t really help being a little rough with puppies (and dogs) and must be carefully supervised to ensure that neither hurts the other.
Where should your puppy sleep? Dogs can sleep in the bedroom — not on your bed, but in their own bed or in a crate. Allowing the dog to sleep in the bedroom is especially important in households where a dog is left alone for hours at a time when the family is at work and at school. Letting your dog sleep in your bedroom — or in your child’s bedroom — counts for time together, even though you’re all asleep. It can go a long way toward building and maintaining a strong bond, assuring your pet that he’s an important member of the pack.
If you want your dog to sleep in the service porch, that’s your business. But please don’t start on the first couple nights after you bring your puppy home. He needs you now. Those first couple nights are tough on a puppy. The reassuring warmth of his littermates is gone, and everything has changed. He’s going to have a lot to say about this situation, so be prepared. He will fuss less if he’s in your presence, if he can be reassured by your smell and the sound of your breathing.
Set up the crate next to your bed and prepare it with a soft blanket to sleep on and a chew toy or two. Tell him “Crate” firmly, put him inside, and close the door. Then open a book, because you won’t be sleeping for awhile. (For more on the use of crates in puppy raising, see Book Training-Agility and Shows
Endure the cries and whines as best you can, but don’t punish your puppy, and don’t take him out when he’s carrying on — you’ll teach him that all he needs to do is fuss to get what he wants. He’ll probably settle down and then wake once or twice in the middle of the night. Take him out to relieve himself — and praise him for doing so — and then put him back in his crate.
In a day or two, the worst of the heartbreaking crying will be over.
by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD