The point of this article is to aid someone before they have decided to adopt a pet. Ideally, it is best for those that don’t yet know what species of pet they wish to acquire, only that they desire a companion. Shopping for a pet can (and should be) extensive. Research should go into any species that you desire, even if it is something as common as a cat or a dog. Many people acquire pets and they aren’t prepared for the responsibility that goes into it.
Likewise, I understand that not every situation will be the ideal ‘Gee, I think I’m mentally/financially ready for a pet.’ Sometimes, a pet wanders into your life and you don’t have much of a decision in the matter. Such as, a loved one passing away and you inheriting their beloved tarantula. Or, you develop an overwhelming bond with a ferret that you’ve found wandering the road that someone did not want. I am hoping that this article will aid those people too. This is meant to be somewhat broad, so that you will know what kind of research and where to look for each particular species.
Dogs make excellent companions. In general, dogs are social creatures that enjoy your attention. They bond with their owners and require a decent amount of stimulation through exercise and socialization with you. Ideally, before you get a dog, researching different breeds you are interested in will increase your chances of getting one that is compatible with your lifestyle. Thousands of dogs are surrendered each year because their owners did not know enough about the breed. There are many different ways to research which dog breed is best for you (this doesn’t mean that you -must- adopt a pure bred dog, but knowledge is power and even knowing a little about your mixed breed can help too).
Once you narrow down which breed you think you like, there are books out there (Boxer/Chihuahua/Border Collie For Dummies – are good ones) to learn even more about the behavior and care required for that particular breed and let you know even more about them to ensure you are picking the right breed for you.
Exercise: All dogs need it in some capacity. Depending upon your living situation and your own exercise habits, you should select a dog that can meet these. Some examples are: living in a house with a yard versus an apartment. Do you work all day? There are dogs that require more and less exercise. What climate do you live in? Some dogs are heat intolerant, some thrive in cold winters. Example: Murcie does not tolerate the heat well (Boxers being brachycephalic [smooshed in nose] means their sinuses are all squished so they don’t cool themselves as efficiently as other dogs). So in the summers, I’ve had to learn her limits to stay as far away as possible from any type of heat-stroke. I only take her on walks in the early morning before the sun rises, or in the evening right before it sets. I’ve read up on signs of heat stroke so that I know exactly what to look for and whenever possible will let her run through a sprinkler or two on our walk.
Under no circumstance is it acceptable to leave your dog outside for hours on end and expect this to be sufficient exercise. I firmly believe that dogs should be mostly indoors and have some sort of supervision while outside. If you are getting a dog to keep outside, you don’t need a dog. It is only under very limited circumstances that I believe a dog can be cared for properly and be outdoors. That is an entirely different article.
* Edit Inspired by Beth Endsley: Researching the breed is very important for a good fit for the family. Some dogs are more high-maintenance than others. If you live in a house, you have a broader range of options. If you live in an apartment, don’t automatically rule out larger breeds. Just because it is a large dog, doesn’t mean it has high-energy requirement. Likewise, not all small dogs are sedentary. Terrier breeds are small but they are often filled with so much energy that you must burn this off in the form of exercise or focused training.
Training: Once again, all dogs need this in some capacity. Your high energy dogs need more training to help keep them from being destructive. The more places you intend to take your dog (exercising, play dates, travel companion), the more training they need. As a responsible pet owner, it is your job to make sure that your dog is sufficiently trained so that they do not pose any risk to other dogs, other people or themselves. What does this mean? It can mean slightly different things to different dogs and different people. As a base, it’s smart to have them know know basic commands. Such as sit, heel, come, lay (or down), and stay. By risk, I mean being a distraction to other dogs who don’t have training, if they ever get off-leash being uncontrollable (hit by a car, anyone?), jumping up when it is inappropriate, knowing how to play around children, etc. Also, having some sort of training is a bonding experience between you and your dog.
Out of all the areas, this one seems to be the one I see less consistently. I’m not really certain why. Training can be as extensive or minimal as you would like. There are some great basic training classes (look locally, ask your Veterinarian for references) out there but there are also countless books on how do do the basics yourself. I always recommend positive reinforcement and clicker training. Period.
Family: Look at lifespans of different dogs so that you can do a little future-planning. Some dogs are more social and take easier to children than others. This is also why training and exercise and socialization are important. Are you planning on having kids in the next 5 years? 10 years? ever? These are questions, even if you haven’t really thought about it before, that you need to take into account. Also think about the age of your dog when you start having kids. If you aren’t planning on having kids for a while, senior dogs need a little extra consideration when thinking about introducing kids into the mix. Think aching joints, diminishing eyesight and hearing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a elderly dog and have kids, it just means that you need to think about how you are going to help your dog acclimate to the newest addition to your family. The answer is not to make your dog who has been indoors his entire life an outdoor dog. While dogs love having a routine, they are also very smart and adaptable. A little pre-planning can go a long way. Fortunately, kids aren’t instantaneous. Nine months or more can be sufficient time to acclimate your dog (of any age) to a child.
If you currently have children, this is likewise a good factor to take into consideration when deciding to get a dog or not. Dogs can teach so many valuable life lessons to kids. Things like responsibility, how to treat something that relies on you completely, showing restraint, etc. Depending upon the age of your children, you may look into a slightly older dog. Or if you want your dog to grow up with your children, a younger one. I’m not immediately against getting an older child a dog that will be “theirs.” Bring your children in on the decision-making. Exact commitments from them for care, exercise and training. However, do not let them get a dog that you aren’t prepared to take over the care for. Children have boundless energy, but if they tire of the dog, you will be the one to take over care. Giving up a dog for adoption because you only got the dog for your kids and had no intention of caring for them is not a good excuse. Period. Kids should ALWAYS have supervision when caring for any pet.
A sight that had instantly warmed my heart is appropriate here. I was on my way home one day and as I pulled into my neighborhood my eyes were instantly drawn to a little girl (maybe 9 or 10) who was walking a puppy of some sort – maybe Lab or Golden on a leash. She had stopped, had her hands crossed over her chest and was deliberately looking away from the dog, chin thrust in the air. The puppy was sitting still at her feet, gazing at her expectantly. After a few seconds of this, she broke her stance, grinned, petted the puppy and they walked on. I can only assume that she had stopped because the puppy was pulling or jumping or exacting some other sort of inappropriate behavior. Several yards behind her was obviously her Dad and a younger sibling on a bike. He had a huge grin on his face. I almost got a little choked up and nearly pulled over to tell the family what a great job they were doing. I should have. This is exactly how t should be working. The little girl is taking control of training under the careful supervision of her parents. They should be proud.
Diet: This is fairly mundane for a dog or a cat (although you can get pretty specific with these guys too). For dogs, the best advice that I can give is to make sure that you budget for a healthy diet. Unfortunately, high quality diets cost money. You don’t have to purchase the most expensive, but buying Old Roy or Alpo because you didn’t figure pet food into your shopping budget is a poor excuse. Diet is extremely important for overall health (and sometimes aiding in the micro-issues that dogs can have). Most of the time, your veterinarian will have a good lifestyle diet recommendation for you (shameless plug).
* Edit Inspired by Beth Endsley: Yearly Expense: Dogs have yearly requirements, like most pets. When they are puppies, getting their vaccines properly boosted at the appropriate intervals by a veterinarian is essential to ensuring their immune system can battle some of the most contagious diseases. As an adult, semi-annual examinations by a veterinarian paired with routine vaccinations can ensure that your pet remains healthy and protected. In Texas, dogs are susceptible to Heartworm disease year ’round. Mosquitoes transmit this little pest and the preventative is usually given monthly. It is much less expensive (and less stressful to the pet) to give the heartworm preventative monthly than it is to treat for heartworms once they contract them.
If you have a long-haired breed, they will need frequent grooming to keep their hair-coat healthy. This doesn’t always mean that you have to pay for an expensive groomer, but some sort of grooming plan for breeds like Shih-Tzus, Poodles and Malteses (among many) is non-negotiable.
Senior dogs need yearly bloodwork in addition to their vaccinations to keep an eye out for kidney, liver, thyroid and other diseases that they can develop.
There’s a variety of options for helping to budget for a pet. Several Pet Insurance companies have surfaced. VPI Pet Insurance and Trupanion are a couple of reputable ones that I know about. It is different from human insurance, so make sure you understand your policy and how to use it before signing up. Creating a pet “savings account,” that you deposit money in every paycheck can also be helpful. Some veterinary clinics have annual wellness packages that might be cost-effective for you. If you have no clue how much all of this care might cost in a real-life scenario, pick up the phone! Most veterinary clinics will give you a detailed estimate on the services that they provide so that you can get an idea of how much care will cost.
Dangers: This might seem fairly self-explanatory. For dogs, it seems like you never know a danger until they mysteriously encounter it. From my experience in veterinary clinics, these are the ones that seem to take owners most by surprise. Plants – yes, there are some that are poisonous to dogs. The biggest offenders are ones that owners already have in their backyard. Before introducing a dog, identify those plants and make sure that if Fuzzy decides to chomp on one, that it isn’t harmful. Chemicals – This is the obvious but is also something you wouldn’t think of. Fertilizers or pesticides in the yard that the dog walks on and then either licks it off of their paws or it stays on the skin, causing irritation. Pools – Not every dog knows how to swim! If you have a pool, please introduce your new friend to the stairs so that they know how to get out. Foreign Body – This doesn’t mean much to most people. This is; however, a veterinarian’s worst nightmare. A foreign body can be anything from a sock, a toy, a bone or a stick. This is anything that a dog ingests that gets stuck and sometimes must be surgically removed. The name of the game here? Know your house! Dog-proofing your house is a lot like child-proofing. Until you know you can trust your dog – don’t. Pick up miscellaneous items and make sure the only things left out are those durable toys that you can trust your dog with.
That last part is depressing, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Hopefully, if you’ve never had a dog before, this opened your eyes to the seriousness of the situation. Dogs are amazing. They are priceless companions that will love you regardless of their care. However, it is your job to make sure that they have a great quality of life. If you want a dog, that’s awesome. Just make sure you are prepared to care for it. That you know what to expect. There are far too many stray pets out there, that I truly believe would have homes if their owners had read an article or two, picked up a dog book or done otherwise to prepare themselves for getting one.