Ready, Set, Stop: What You Need to Know Before You Choose a Dog

Love Dog

In This Chapter

  • Making sure there’s room in your life for a dog
  • Calculating the cost of dog ownership
  • Identifying your pet-owner responsibilities
  • Taking a dog for a test drive
You’re on the mark. You’re set. You’re ready to run . . . straight to the nearest pair of wistful puppy eyes. Whoa, there! Ever hear about those times when people could kick themselves? Mm-hmm. This is one of them.
If you buy a shirt that doesn’t fit, it’s no big deal. You simply return it or give it away. Poor magazine choices can be recycled or canceled. When you cave in to puppy love, though, it’s a dog of a different color. The time for making decisions about whether to buy — as well as how, when, and where to do it — is before you look into those big brown eyes. Putting a cute pup down and walking away is downright impossible, especially after she snuggles close to you and licks the tip of your nose.
The wide and wonderful world of dogs boasts more than 400 breeds of canines. Finding a puppy seems like a simple task, but it can be overwhelming when it comes to finding just the right dog — the perfect dog — for you. This chapter helps you sort through the whens, wheres, and hows of finding a dog.

If everyone buying or breeding dogs were to strive to become responsible pet owners, then the people who are involved with rescues and shelters could turn their energies toward raising funds for veterinary research, conducting education seminars, or simply having more time with their own dogs.

Remember

After getting them home, dogs must have physical care to thrive. The necessities of life include shelter, coat care, fresh water, good-quality food, prevention of illness, companionship, and medical treatment when needed. Over the centuries, human society has changed wild, self-sufficient canines into domesticated pets who can’t provide for themselves. True, as long as the large, white porcelain water bowl in the bathroom is kept flushed, all but the smallest dogs can find water. Oh, and yeah, occasionally a bread crust is nibbled beneath the baby’s chair or a steak is snarfed from the countertop. But other than those accidental waterings and feedings, dogs are pretty much dependent upon us.

Returning a pup after human and canine hearts become connected is painful for all involved. Similarly, disposing of a dog because you’ve satisfied a temporary whim is unfair. And, last but not least, impulse decisions can lead to a lifetime of regret. So right now — before you buy — is the time to examine your lifestyle, facilities, and pocketbook. Forethought eliminates later pain for dogs and people. This chapter can help you decide whether you’re ready for the commitment. After your self-examination, you may find that a dog isn’t a good choice for you at all. You may find that you’d be better off with a cat, a fish, or a pet rock.

Considering Your Lifestyle

Before your heart is set on a new dog, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

– Is this the right time for adding a dog to my life?

– Am I emotionally capable of devoting a lot of time and energy to taking care of a living creature’s every need, from now to perhaps a dozen or more years down the road?

– Does my work schedule allow for time to take care of a dog?

– Is my household/neighborhood a good place for a dog to live?

– Who’s going to watch the pup when I go away?

Contemplate all aspects of your life, present and future. Even though you may not currently have small children, consider the possibility of becoming a parent. Also think about visitors, neighbors, or grandchildren. Everything involves some risk. Children can love dogs too much by hugging them too tightly, and they can also fall on them, pick them up in the wrong way, or even drop and seriously injure them, especially Toy breeds or puppies.
However, it isn’t always the dog who’s injured. Rowdy canine play can result in a child being knocked over or scratched. Small or timid dogs can snap if cornered. Herding dogs sometimes instinctively round up their charges by nipping at heels or behinds. Guardian breeds may take their jobs too seriously, especially when “intruders,” such as visiting children, engage in rough, noisy play. You still can choose your ideal dog even though you have children, but you may want to wait until they’re a few years older.

Tip

Scheduling a family meeting and obtaining the approval of everyone who’ll share the household with the pet is a good idea, even if you’ll be the main caretaker. The dad who grudgingly buys Junior a dog hoping to teach the lad responsibility will be up to his neck in doggie doo within a week. When a sullen teenager promises he’ll take care of the pup, you need to get real.

Some people who have grown up with pets know that a dog is a treasured friend. For some, it doesn’t make any difference how busy they are; they simply wouldn’t think of being without a dog — no matter what the obligations — any more than they would decide to isolate themselves from human family or friends. But even lifelong dog lovers need to realize that circumstances may change regarding finances, living quarters, or leisure time. Perhaps having a dog still is possible, but you must choose wisely. You pay the price, and the dog suffers the consequences when you make the wrong decision.

Warning!

Don’t ever buy a dog as a surprise gift for someone. Buying a pet for an unsuspecting friend or relative is one of the worst ideas you can ever have — dumber even than getting matching his-and-hers socket wrench kits for your anniversary.

The Money Angle: Keeping Canine Expenses in Mind

Dogs truly are love that money can buy. But the expense surely doesn’t end with the purchase. Even a dog given to you by a puppy-burdened co-worker doesn’t come without expensive needs. Sure, the love and affection are free, but unfortunately, other life necessities are not. Even free dogs cost money.
A medium-sized dog can easily eat, chew, and barf his way through more than $900 a year. No skimping on generic dog food for this prince of a pup, so figure $300 for quality food. Dog tags average anywhere from $10 to $50. Even if your dog is healthy all year, his veterinarian bill can still runs $200 or more for exams, vaccinations, flea control, and heartworm prevention. For a dog who needs professional grooming, tack on at least another $150 per year. Oh, and do you like to go on vacation? If you don’t take the dog with you every time, you may have to pay someone to dogsit. If you add in the occasional dog walker, you can tack on another $100 a year. You like to buy fancy treats, right — and Frisbees, tennis balls, real bones, and elaborate dog toys and accessories? Add another $100. That’s without replacing the chewed baseboards, couch cushions, and shoes. Not to mention all those training classes you’ll want to try.

Remember

Large-sized dogs, such as Labs, Great Danes, and Mastiffs, have bigger tummies to fill and more square inches to groom. They also need larger doses of medications and preventives as well as bigger and more expensive collars and housing.

Puppy

The first year of dog ownership is often the costliest. Puppies need lots of supplies and preventive care to start a good life. Bowls, housing, blankets, brushes and combs, nail clippers, collars, and leashes all need to be on your list of supplies to buy. Other smart investments include training classes and fencing for either your yard or an exercise area.

If you’re interested in a purebred pup, also keep in mind that prices can be quite hefty depending on the breed and the breeder’s reputation. Dogs with impressive pedigrees and real show prospects are almost always more expensive.
Last but not least, what about you? What shape are your finances in? Are you starting a new business or saving for a new home? If so, you may want to wait a bit of time to get a pet. After all, if unexpected and unplanned expenses occur lifewise or dogwise, will that extra mouth to feed still be considered a valuable part of the family — or another albatross around your neck? Writing out the check to the dog breeder won’t be the last time your pup cracks open your checkbook or picks your pocket (sometimes literally).

Recognizing Your Responsibilities

Responsibility. You know how much you hated that word when your folks first lectured you about it? Well, it follows you the rest of your life. When you adopt a four-legged dependent and take this hairy creature into your home, you’re as responsible for him as much as if you’d brought him into the world. He deserves to be fed, housed, and given vet care for the rest of his life. A pup needs boundaries set for behavior, and these boundaries must be taught to him in a fair, humane manner — otherwise he’ll go as far out of bounds as any normal human teenager. The difference is that most human kids don’t bite when they’re out of control.
Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation to be mentally and physically healthy. They can’t do this by themselves, however. Even with a huge, safely fenced area, they won’t constantly run around and play unless someone can join their pack and share in the fun. They also may pick inappropriate ways to entertain themselves when left to their own devices — chewing the siding off the house, digging in the prize petunia patch, or barking at imaginary friends.
Some dog owners view the responsibilities of ownership as a pleasure. When you compare caring for a dog with some other responsibilities, such as teaching a teen to drive (and actually handing over the keys), paying bills, and covering college tuition, your dog’s needs are relatively simple:
  • Exercise
  • Food and water
  • Safety
  • Shelter
  • Training
  • Vet care
Even though they’re simple, the items in the preceding list are essential. Provide these things, and you ensure that you have an appreciative, loving buddy for a long time to come.

Warning!

Without these essentials, however, you not only compromise your dog’s health, but you also risk turning him into a creature with less than desirable habits, including

  • Barking all night
  • Biting
  • Making the Persian rug the puppy potty
  • Stealing food
  • Turning the antique credenza into toothpicks

Remember

Before you buy a dog, be sure that you’re ready to accept the responsibilities of ownership — all of them. When you’re truly ready to be a dog owner, the rewards are many.

Besides nurturing your exciting new relationship with your new best friend, you’re also responsible for developing at least one more with your veterinarian. Good vets (and there should be no other kind) recommend everything you need to do to ensure the health of your dog for many years. You can find more on vets in Chapter Preventing and Treating Diseases: Working with Your Vet. You may also have a new bond with a breeder. A responsible — there’s that word again — breeder always answers your questions, cheers you on, and shares your sorrow a dozen years down the road. See Chapters Considering All the Options and Looking for Love in All the Right Places for more information on breeders.

Tip

Choose vet relationships wisely. During conversations with the doctor and his staff, you’ll have good or bad vibes. Pay attention to them. Someone may have referred you to this person, but you’re the one who has to deal with him in person or on the phone. Follow your gut feeling; if it doesn’t feel right, walk away.

Keeping your dog safe

Being a good puppy or dog parent means making certain that your four-legged friend is safe at all times. Unlike the old days when someone almost always was at home, many demands are placed on the time of today’s family, whose members are often away from the home front. Puppies are much like human toddlers. They’re curious, and when left to their own devices they will eventually provide entertainment (and danger) for themselves. This can mean chewing on electrical cords, visiting the kids across the highway, or swallowing the pork chop bones left in the trash. So it’s important to puppy-proof your home when you’re away. See Chapter Helping Your Adopted Dog Make the Homecoming Transition for more on how to do this.

Exercising your pooch

No dog park? No yard? You still can give your dog exercise without jeopardizing her safety — but exercise she must! Jog with her. Enroll in agility classes. Get a retractable leash. These leashes extend the dog’s roaming freedom from 16 feet to a whopping 32 feet. However, be sure that you’re adept at using one and that plenty of space is open so the dog doesn’t wind the leash around trees or legs (painful rope burns!), or, worse, dart in front of a car. See Chapter All the Right Stuff for more on leashes.

Providing adequate shelter

If you leave your dog outdoors for any length of time, he needs suitable shelter from the sun, rain, snow, and extreme temperatures as well as a respite from the public eye. Every dog wants to be alone now and then. He seeks a protected place for a nap, for example. And of course fresh water must be available at all times, indoors and out.
Here are a few good shelter options that can keep your dog from running loose and possibly causing injury to himself or others:
  • A kennel run (at least 3 x 10 feet, or larger for a big dog) with a house
  • A crate under a deck or overhang
  • A doggy door into a garage pen, basement, or house

Warning!

Whatever you do, don’t ever chain a dog and leave him. A chain makes a dog feel vulnerable and that he must defend himself. And never use a trolley with a sliding attachment; these devices incite dogs to run back and forth. In fact, dogs can hang themselves on these contraptions (and have done so) when unsupervised. Neighbors are likely to take a dim view of both techniques as well, and then you could get an embarrassing visit from an animal protection agency.

Tip

When you can’t be around to supervise your pet, provide a safe house or room. The best place — especially for puppies — is a dog kennel. You can use either a crate indoors or a secure fenced area outdoors. Some owners prefer putting a pup in a kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room while they’re gone. Usually these areas can be shut off with a door or baby gate, have little to damage, and are easily cleaned when messes occur. If accessible to little paws or needle-sharp teeth, items still may be damaged, but at least his life won’t be endangered. Try putting a favorite toy — one that’s given to him only when he’s confined — in the area and move other items out of reach. 

Taking part in training

Training classes make your dog a treasured family member and good citizen. In fact, the AKC has a test for all dogs — registered, purebred, or mixed — called the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. A basic training class teaches your dog to become a CGC. Large metropolitan areas offer many choices for owners who want to train their dogs. But even out in the boonies, you usually can find a club or private trainer within a half-hour’s drive. Whether you introduce your pooch to training classes or not, be sure to check out Book Training-Agility and Shows, which provides a lot of information on training your dog.
Classes are great, not only for the camaraderie but also for the socialization of the dog with others of all sizes and breeds. However, the private trainer offers a couple pluses, too. You can arrange training according to your schedule, and the trainer’s attention isn’t divided among a dozen students, enabling the trainer to focus on your needs and your dog’s quirks.

Puppy

Puppy kindergarten offers the basics in good house manners. You usually are recommended to begin these classes as soon as the pup has been inoculated. Formal obedience training can begin any time after the dog reaches 4 months of age. These classes aren’t just for competition or for good citizenship. They can save your dog’s life. One of the more important lessons is the recall, in which your pup learns to come when you call her. Imagine if your dog escapes and runs toward a busy street — you can yell, “DOWN!” or “COME!” and she’ll do it!

You may have such a good time with the basics that you consider handling or agility classes. Usually only those people who intend to show in the breed ring attend handling classes. But agility training is for anyone and everyone — all sizes and breeds. Agility gives your dog good exercise as you race together through an obstacle course. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who’s having a better time — the owner or the dog. Even though speed is necessary for top prizes, many disabled, elderly, or just plain clumsy people compete for the fun of it.

Tip

Not all training clubs or private trainers are listed in the phone book. Call your vet or the Better Business Bureau for a referral. Talk to other owners who’ve been pleased with their training experiences as well.

Remembering essential vet care

A pup needs inoculations to protect against various canine diseases, including rabies, distemper, and parvovirus. Each year a dog needs a physical exam, any necessary boosters, and heartworm tests. A preventive for this dangerous parasite is advised in most areas as well. You also may want to consider flea and tick prevention. Regular vet checks help to establish a patient-doctor relationship that’s beneficial if an illness or injury occurs.

Puppy

Routine intestinal parasite screenings (fecal exams) are also a good idea, particularly for pups, because they often carry parasites that are contagious to humans.

Testing Your Readiness: Rent-a-Dog

So you’ve just about decided to take the leap and bring a dog into your world. A life is involved here, though, so you want to make sure that this is the right decision for you. What can you do to make sure that you’re not making a mistake? Many people do a little dogsitting sometime before making the plunge into pet parenthood. Then they’re aware of some of the agonies of guardianship (albeit temporary) as well as the many ecstasies. Thus, the answer to your question is: Borrow a dog.
Offer to help a neighbor who has a new puppy and can’t make it home during the lunch hour. You’ll be introduced to overturned water bowls and housetraining accidents. And you’ll swear that the shark from Jaws, rather than a 10-pound pup, has you by the ankle. Pray that it’s winter so you’ll at least be wearing long pants as a protection against those nails when the little darling claws its way up your legs to lick you from ear to ear. An earsplitting yodel greets you as you arrive, and another mourns your departure.
Thinking about a giant breed? The puppies are so cute and cuddly! But babies do have a way of growing up — and fast. Dogsit a Great Pyrenees for the week someone’s on vacation. Mop up great goobers. Clean up elephantine droppings from the yard. If you’re really brave, let the beast romp in a mud puddle and follow it up with a brushing and a bath. Prepare yourself for walks by lifting weights. Long white hair will decorate your wool suit, clog your drains, and keep the dog in your memory long after he has returned home.

Tip

Volunteer to provide foster care for a dog when the Humane Society is full. If you’re considering a particular breed, contact the rescue organization for the breed’s local or national clubs. Just like traumatized children, abandoned or abused dogs have nightmares and tortures in their pasts. And like children, they need love and attention now. A rescued dog will thank you with a tail wag and a lick, and by laying his head upon your knee.

Remember

After a dog enters your home, she may never leave. Even if she physically leaves, she takes a little piece of your heart. Corny? Maybe. Also true.

If you’ve finally decided that you want to take the plunge and introduce a dog into your life — perhaps one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make — congratulations! Now you face numerous other choices as you work your way toward dog ownership. You need to think about whether you want an adult dog or a puppy — both have their advantages. Male or female? Pure breed or mixed breed? Great dogs can be found in plenty of places — through reputable breeders, humane societies, and breed rescue organizations, to name a few. But when you get to the place where you’ll choose a dog, you still need to know what you’re looking for in an individual dog. Chapters Considering All the Options and Looking for Love in All the Right Places help you make these decisions (and many more) in narrowing down the choices and making sure that you get the right dog for you. And of course, all the chapters in Book Meet the Breeds introduce you to the unique characteristics of the various breeds.
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

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