Read an Excerpt
" So You Want a Dog
Right now, our five dogs mill around my chair lobbying for another walk out back. We've already gone on one hike down to the pond and another up the big hill, but it is getting late in the day and we all need to get out again.
These dogs demand daily training, supervision, and vigorous exercise to remain healthy and manageable. If we neglect our end of the bargain, if we are too busy or distracted to care for them properly, we will see our neglect in their restlessness.
If we were to neglect them for a few days, we might begin to see real tension in the group, more intensity over toys and food, bigger reactions toward strangers at the door. Keep up our neglect for a week and "bad" behaviors would bloom ;maybe chewing, excessive barking, hyperactivity, or cat chasing. Those would be the dogs' behaviors, but they would be our fault.
Deciding to care for a dog is a serious decision. Dogs are dependent on you for their education, entertainment, health care, and safety. Canine care requires an investment of emotion, energy, cash, and time to do well, yet it is not worth doing any other way.
Why Do You Want a Dog?
The first thing to ask yourself is why you want a dog. Here are several of the most common reasons and what we think of them.
"For the kids."
If you mean that by having a dog around, your children will learn empathy, caring, and unconditional love, then yes, "For the kids" is fine.
But if you mean that you're responding to constant pressure from your child on the provision that your child promises to do all the dog care (and what child has ever said, "Mom, you're right. I don't think I am mature enough for this large responsibility?"), then you are guaranteeing a bad experience for yourself, the dog, and, most important, your child.
Canine care is too big a venture for a child. Most adults find it challenging, especially for the first year or two. Children do not have mature levels of forethought, planning skills, or consistency. That's what makes them kids, besides being appreciably shorter than you. While caring for a family pet can certainly help build those qualities in your child, they are not normally present in a nine-year-old, nor should they be anticipated.
Expect to do nine-tenths of the work and to nag for the completion of the other tenth. If you become really good at training, you may be able to motivate your child to complete his or her dog-related chores without much reminding. If you manage to do that, write your own book and we'll buy it!
If you get a dog for this reason you are not alone, but you, and all the others who base this decision on fear, are setting yourself up for a fall. A dog is twenty-four hours a day, not just once or twice a year when you hear something go bump in the night. (A "something" more likely to be your cat jumping off the counter than Jack the Ripper entering your home.)
The large, powerful, assertive breeds that people choose when frightened are not the kinds of dogs that usually make easy, carefree pets. Nowadays it is not just your safety you have to worry about. Recently, an owner was convicted of murder for the death of a child mauled by her three large dogs. The tide is changing and the responsibility you have for your animal's behavior is increasing.
This is not only a tragedy for the people involved, it is a disaster for the dogs. Dogs selected and owned by people who are ill prepared for the responsibility are making the ownership of all dogs increasingly difficult. Laws trying to legislate dog ownership are constantly on the docket. The favored tactic is to attempt to prohibit the ownership of any breed deemed dangerous, as if by eliminating a breed, you can eliminate the problem. We have news for those lawmakers: There are always other bigger and more assertive breeds than the ones that are popular now. The breed is not the problem; people's choices, and their management of those choices, are.
"To breed and make some money."
Ha! By the time you breed, raise, train, care for, feed, groom, vaccinate, and buy equipment for your dogs, you will spend far more than you hoped to gain. We recently spoke to a woman who bred her Border Collie for extra cash. The bitch had trouble whelping, ending up with a cesarean. When the dog awoke, she wanted nothing to do with the pups. The owner was up around the clock trying to feed them. She had now spent hundreds of dollars on surgery, the puppies were dying, and the mother wasn't doing well.
With the millions of animals euthanized every year for lack of loving homes, leave the breeding to people who have studied their breed, done the necessary genetic testing, and carefully planned for the breeding. You can help your breed by neutering your pet(s).
"I want something to love me."
We all do, but that is not the reason to get a dog. A dog does not exist to fulfill your emotional needs, although she very well may help with some of them. Simply housing a dog so it's around when you need it is not enough. You need to teach, play, interact with, schedule your time around, tend to, understand, and love another being on its own terms ;separate from you.
We have seen many dogs, especially toy breeds, spoiled to the point of neurosis by people who project all their own needs, fears, and worries onto those tiny shoulders. Give the dog a break!
"I want to share my life with an animal."
Bingo! We have a winner. Your life will be changed. You are willing to invest whatever it takes to be a responsible caretaker. In the process, your children will learn empathy, you will feel safer and be unconditionally loved. What a great deal!
What a Dog Will Demand
Now that you have assessed your reason for getting a dog, let us consider what this decision will demand of your life.
Daily exercise will be some part of your life. If you choose one of the popular retriever breeds, exercise will be a major part of your life. Letting the dog out into the yard by himself does not count. You must actively interact with him to ensure that he gets the physical workout he requires.
When the dog is young (under two years) he will need, above all, your attention and supervision. Get chatting on the phone and expect to clean up a mess of one kind or another. You'll be getting up earlier, staying active longer, and resting less. Those are not necessarily bad things, they are just factors to consider.
This is the immeasurable benefit and the infinite cost of becoming attached to a dog. Who would willingly give up a doggy smile first thing in the morning, the joyful blaze of intelligent recognition when the dog understands, the blessing of a dog's forgiveness, the gentleness of a quiet head resting on a knee? For many of us, and soon for you, too, life without at least one animal companion is unimaginable.
Balance this against unavoidable heartache. No beloved companion lives long enough. It is a great gift to be able to end suffering, yet it is a grave and terrible decision to make. To decide it is time to end the life of one of your best friends is always hard, even when you know it is right. Right and easy are different things; this is something you discover when you cradle your dog in your arms and love him out of this life the way he loved you in it.
Mere possession of an animal or an object does not immediately endow you with expertise regarding it. We, for example, have owned and driven cars for several decades, and yet neither of us can rebuild a motor. Can you?
In this day and age, fewer and fewer of us are raised around animals. We live in a world that discovers animals more through television than through personal experience. For this and future generations, knowledge of animal behavior will have to be consciously acquired because it will not have had a chance to be previously absorbed.
At a bare minimum, that means sitting in on a couple of local obedience classes, reading a few books, watching a few training videos. Our "Resources" section will refer you to some good sources.
Dog training is like cooking: There are many ways to do it and a lot of them are wonderful. Try not to get method bound ;the right method is the one that works for your dog and you, in this instance. The only common thread you'll find in "good" methods is that they are not abusive. Abuse is yelling, kicking, hanging, hitting, shaking, slapping, or in any way attacking the animal or unleashing your anger in the guise of education.
Stay away from any trainer who recommends any of the above. While violence may cow a dog into submission in some instances (in others it will goad him into aggression), it will cost you a piece of the bond you two share.
Beyond that, whether you find a trainer who uses praise, play, or food as a motivator does not matter. You just want someone who motivates. Ideally, that motivation is combined with sensible, effective correction. A good correction is swift, to the point, used sparingly, and at a level that gets the desired results without creating new problems. If your dog stops jumping on people but now shies away, showing stress and fear, you haven't gained ground; you've lost it. Good corrections also work. If you have to use several in a row, stop. You are not being effective. That does not mean you have to correct harder, which is a common, but incorrect, assumption. If your timing is wrong, you aren't being clear, no foundation of understanding has been taught, or the dog is frightened, correcting harder is not the least bit educational.
With good training, improvement happens swiftly. A dog who is taught with clarity and fun will be relaxed, with his tail wagging. Good trainers are not always easy to find, but they are well worth the effort to locate.
Dogs cost money. Even if you adopt one for free, their spaying or neutering, yearly veterinary care, food, toys, and sundries add up. The larger the dog, the larger the bills. If you have a yard, for instance, you will need fencing.
Then there are the less expected expenses: the larger car when the dog simply does not fit in the hatchback, the air conditioning because he gets so hot in the summer. Don't laugh too hard ;we promise that you will make purchases for reasons you might not want to admit in open court. These can total a thousand dollars or more a year ;easily over ten thousand dollars during the life of the dog. Are you ready for that financial commitment?
Most dogs require quite a bit of your time during the first few years. Depending on the temperament of the breed or mix you elect to live with, you may be looking at an hour or more a day for exercise, training, and/or grooming. Most breeds add time to your housecleaning duties and some add a lot of time. Some breeds take less time but regardless of how calm your dog appears, he still needs your attention daily.
You can no longer go from work to a restaurant or out to a movie. A dog is a social animal who will become neurotic without your company. If you do not have this kind of time to give, choose a less demanding pet.
If you live in an all-white house, don't get a Bouvier des Flandres. Between those fuzzy paws and his dirty beard, your walls and floors will never be the same. If you find the occasional dog hair in your casserole disgusting, skip the Alaskan Malamute. If you can't stomach a dog on the bed, you can't have a Whippet; they are born wanting to be under the covers. If your idea of an active day is a slow stroll in the park, then a gleeful German Shorthaired Pointer may not be your cup of tea. Know thyself!
The bottom line is, Don't fall in love with a picture in a book. That's about as sensible (and successful) as selecting a spouse from a mail-order catalog. Think about how you live, then make an intelligent choice based on what you need. The most beautiful dog in the world is the one that fits into your lifestyle.
Certain breeds need more space than others, and the amount isn't always based on the dog's physical size. An active Weimaraner needs more room to stretch than a more massive but calmer Saint Bernard. Some breeds require a yard or, if in an urban environment, a safe, conveniently located fenced area. If a breeder or rescue worker tells you the breed requires space that you don't have, accept it and move on. There are over four hundred breeds of dogs in the world; try not to get too attached to one.
Common sense is a matter of experience more than intelligence. It can be acquired through study. To experienced dog people, it is common sense not to stare directly into the eyes of a strange dog, but until you learn that, how are you supposed to know?
The common sense we want you to have relates to responsibility. More than ever, we all need to watch our dogs, both for their safety and the safety of others.
Dogs with children should be vigilantly watched, even dogs who are "good" with kids. All animals ;including people ;have a breaking point. You will only be able to see it coming if you can see it happening. Children should never be allowed to do anything to a dog that you would not allow them to do to an infant. Riding, chasing, hitting, scaring, annoying them when they sleep or eat all fall under the heading of harassment.
Dogs cannot be let out the door to wander free. This is dangerous for the dog and for other people. You are responsible for the damage your dog does, whether on purpose or by accident. Although we grew up in a world where both kids and dogs could wander free, that world no longer exists in most of the United States.
It is also common sense not to allow an animal to breed just for puppies or because it is natural. In a world where literally millions of animals are killed a year because they do not have a home, creating life is a serious responsibility. Do not breed unless you have researched genetic disease, studied canine development, can drop everything for seven weeks to tend the litter, are willing to take any animal you produce back at any time for any reason, and have a list of people already interested in your pups. People who love animals make sure no more are produced to go unloved, frightened, and confused to an early death. People who love animals neuter and spay their pets. That's just common sense.
When Is the Best Time to Get a Dog?
This is an individual decision, but there are a few things you might consider.
Up north where we live, we do not recommend getting a puppy in winter. Housebreaking a puppy is harsh going in a sleet storm. Carrying a squirming pup down icy steps at one in the morning is no fun. Trying to don your winter gear before the pup urinates is a race against the clock.
Even more pressing is socialization, another of the responsibilities of rearing a dog. Getting a pup out and about ;after your vet's okay ;is critical to your companion's mental and behavioral development. If you put it off till the warmer months, you may miss an irreplaceable window of opportunity. The nervous, fearful, or aggressive dog your pup may now grow into is all your doing, but it will be the animal who suffers most.
The holidays are a bad time to get a pet. Why? Most households are in an uproar. People are visiting, parties abound, and dangerous things like tinsel, chocolate, toxic plants, and candles are everywhere. Spur-of-the-moment thinking rules. If you have carefully considered this addition to your household, if you are ready to cope with winter socialization and housebreaking challenges, then gift wrap a bowl, a toy, and a snapshot of the pup. Save the actual homecoming for a few days later, when all is cleared away and calm.
Never buy a pet for someone else as a gift. An animal is too great and personal a decision for someone else. If you are sure the recipient is interested, give a snapshot of the pup ;if the breeder will allow it: Many good breeders will not allow such shenanigans, knowing that it rarely works out best for the pup.
If everyone is normally out of the house all day, vacations are a good time to bring your new family member home. This allows you all to get to know each other a bit before the inevitable separation of work or school. Do yourself a favor, though: Stick to a similar schedule as your nonvacation one. Giving the dog all your attention during vacation, then suddenly isolating him when you go back to work is confusing and stressful for him and may cause him to develop separation anxiety. Instead, plan most of your interaction times for morning and evenings, allowing the day hours to be calmer ones. If you are going to have someone come in midday to care for the animal, have her start when you are at home. Not only does this foster a smoother transition for the dog, it also allows you to supervise this new caretaker.
Just before Baby
This is a common wish. Families want to get a puppy around the same time a baby arrives so the two can grow up together. This sounds like a good idea when every parental hormone you have is firing off in unison, but take our unhormonally influenced advice and don't do it!
Why not wait until after the baby? If you still have energy, attention, and time to spare a few months later, feel free. We've never had parents take us up on that suggestion. The best time to add a dog to a family with children is when the children reach the age of some reason and a bare minimum of motor control ;say, five or six years old.
Which One for Me?
Now that we have the why and the when conquered, let's go on to the who (or the which, depending on how you feel about dogs). Breed selection is covered in the rest of this book, but let's explore some other issues here.
Males are more aggressive? Females more loving? Not always, and especially not after neutering. In many breeds, it is the exact opposite. Neutered male Bouviers des Flandres and Australian shepherds can both be calmer and less reactive than females. Talk to breeders, rescue workers, and your vet before you make the decision of which sex you want or even if it makes any difference at all.
The rumor persists that males are harder to housebreak than females. We have not found this to be true. Neutering prevents many of the more obnoxious male dog traits from blossoming, like leg lifting, shin riding, and dog fighting. Every pet should be neutered at or before six months of age.
YOUNG/OLD - What age is best? First, never bring home a pup less than six weeks of age. Other than that, it's your choice.
Young pups are adorable, affectionate, fuzzy, time-sucking, energy-eating, sleep-depriving beasts. Sarah is raising a pup at this moment. So far today she has gotten up at 4:30 a.m. for a quick potty run, taken the pup for two long walks, scrubbed out her crate, trimmed her nails, attended to a minor infection, removed several objects from her mouth (dangerous), inserted several safe objects into her mouth, supervised some social time with two of the adult dogs, and done a bit of training. It is now 10:00 a.m.
Would she change it? No, but it is a lot of work. Work that cannot be put off until a more convenient time.
OLDER DOGS - The myth surrounding older dogs is that they won't bond to their new family. False! We have a German Shepherd male whom we acquired fully grown. He is marvelous. Endlessly devoted, as are many adopted adult dogs, he never voluntarily lets us out of his sight. Adults are comparatively settled. The energy levels, housebreaking, and chewing are all reasonably stable. Most adults arrive with a few issues of one kind or another. Our Shepherd male came unhousebroken and uneducated about stairs, vacuums, and chewing furniture. None of these issues posed a big problem. He had all the rules down in about a month, though we still crate him when he is left alone. Some dogs take longer to train. Some come with more problems, some with fewer, but most of these problems are workable.
In general, do not take dogs that have been raised strictly in a kennel; it is roughly equivalent to adopting a child who has never stepped out of the house. If a dog isn't socialized as a youngster, you cannot do it effectively later. It is heartbreaking, but there are plenty of sweet, reasonably socialized dogs waiting for your love right now. Do not take any dog that is shy, skittish, or aggressive. Whatever age, or background, you want a happy, people-loving dog.
As mentioned before, the size of a dog can be misleading. Unless you have specific size needs, you are better off assessing your dog by temperament than by bulk. Saying "I want a calm, easygoing dog in the city" is more useful than saying "I need a small apartment dog." A Miniature Pinscher is small in stature only. He will take up a giant-sized portion of time and energy.
That said, both extremes, tiny and huge, have their own charm. The vision of a thirty-seven-inch Great Dane standing nobly by your side brings with it a sense of control, power, and safety few experiences can replicate. Yet the thought of cuddling a tiny toy puppy in the palm of your hands gets the parental juices of the toughest soul going. Fantasy aside, the realities are not nearly so romantic.
HUGE - Giant breeds are short lived. If they see ten years old, it is an accomplishment. Health problems abound, and even a minor temperament flaw that could be forgivable and perhaps even endearing in a smaller dog is a hazard in a big one.
Then there are the facts of living with them. When they walk up to your dinner table, they simply stand and survey the food. No spot on the counter is safe. Coffee tables will be cleared with one sweep of their tails. A joyful greeting bounce can knock you over. A happy hop up to lick your face can break a tooth or crack a facial bone. (Sarah lost half of her front tooth to an overly enthusiastic dog. And we know one owner who was sued when her large-breed dog gave a too-forceful hello that broke the cheekbone of a neighbor.
Their size is unwieldy. Stretched out in the living room, they take up the space of a couch. They simply do not fit in the average car, nor can you easily buy a crate for one. You need to special order it, then find a place in your home for a nearly four-foot-square cage.
None of this seems overwhelming if you are smitten by one of these wonderful giants. We have fallen hard for Great Danes, been enthralled by more than one Newfoundland, and dreamed of acquiring a Great Pyrenees. Yes, there are some drawbacks to their size, but those can be more than made up for by the enchanting personalities and interesting minds possessed by some giant breeds.
TINY - Smaller sounds easier than huge, right? Not really. While they won't break your teeth, they may break their own legs hopping off the bed or getting caught in a door by mistake. Stepping on a toy breed can cause serious injury to the dog. Trying to avoid stepping on one can cause injury to you.
They are prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and dehydration because they are so small. A bout of diarrhea that would be inconsequential for a normal-sized pup can mean hospitalization for a "teacup" poodle puppy. Dental problems are also significant, with retained puppy teeth and rotting adult teeth needing surgical attention. Again, their charms more than outweigh their downfalls, but anyone contemplating an extreme size should be aware of what is involved.
Basically, the ancestors of the dog were 35-to-45-pound wolves with pointed noses, erect ears, short coats, and long tails. The farther you get from that general model either in size or in shape, the more problems you are likely to discover.
© 1999 by Brian Kilcommons"