So You Want a Dog?
I’m really excited for you! According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are 74.8 million dogs owned in the U.S.—and you may be about to boost that number. Dogs can be affectionate, loyal, spunky, and respectful companions. Some make great exercise buddies, while others offer an endless source of affection. Come to think of it, dogs can be any jumble of qualities based on their background and breed, so the trick to finding one that’s right for you is being able to combine research with instinct and a whole lot of love. When deciding on what kind of dog is best for your home, you’ll need to think hard about what makes you tick and the canine qualities that are the right fit for your lifestyle. And remember: This is a commitment that you’ll be making for approximately fifteen years. Then again, the oldest dog on record lived to be twenty-nine, so you may want to plan for a bit longer …
Before you even get a dog, it’s important to know exactly what you want from the pet and what you hope to get from your relationship with him. So in this chapter, I’ll help you figure out your best canine match by suggesting specific ways to emotionally and mentally prepare for the new relationship. I’ll take you through questions like: What are the benefits of full-grown dogs versus puppies? How active would you like your dog to be? Is anyone in your home allergic to dogs, and if so, what breeds lend themselves to hypoallergenic traits? I’ll also go into the best and worst places for you to get a dog. Never forget that owning a pet requires an open mind and a welcoming heart. So let’s get to it. You have some reading to do!
Where Do Dogs Come From?
According to Mary Burch, PhD, CAAB, an animal behaviorist with the American Kennel Club (AKC), the dogs that we know and love today are called Canis lupus familiaris to the researchers who study them. In fact, “lupus” is the word that indicates that dogs are connected to the ancestral wolf (though some dogs, like Shih Tzus, look more like descendents of the Muppet). Science tells us that dogs evolved from a group of domesticated wolves in East Asia about fifteen thousand years ago, with earlier ancestors documented as far back as forty thousand years. Through selective breeding for specific characteristics, modern dogs have evolved over the last five hundred years.
It took a long time to create the 160-plus breeds that the AKC recognizes today. If an owner had a large brown-and-white dog and wanted a smaller version, he’d breed the smallest female in that litter to the smallest male he could find. He would continue breeding smaller and smaller dogs until he actually created a mini-version of the dog he started with generations earlier. So, from the 180-pound Mastiff to the 2-pound Chihuahua, all breeds came from a common ancestor—including mixed breeds, an even more colorful variation on the domesticated-dog theme. How interesting is that?
Studies Show How Dogs Can Improve Your Life
When people talk about why they want a dog, they usually cite emotional benefits: company, love, a way to add a little fun to their current lifestyle. Dogs are thrilled to see you after a long day, they always want to hang out with you, and their positive spirit rarely fails to make you smile. But studies tell us that dogs add so much more to your life than games of fetch and slobbery kisses. In fact, dogs can benefit your physical and psychological health, in some cases even more so than human relationships. I’ve combed through a bunch of dog studies and found a few interesting perks that you can look forward to:
DOGS DECREASE STRESS
Dog owners have lower blood pressure, a slower heartbeat, and more relaxed muscles. It can take days or weeks before you benefit from meds, yet with only five to twenty-four minutes of petting or simply being in the moment with their pet, owners can relieve stress.
Dog owners live longer, since they deal with anxiety better and fight depression easier.
Dog owners have lower cholesterol and triglycerides and are at less risk of developing heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. These positive effects continue even when you’re away from your dog.
Heart attack victims have a higher survival rate when they spend time with a dog. They may feel a need to recover quickly so they can care for the pet, who then buffers them from future stress.
Dog owners walk about 300 minutes per week compared with nondog owners, who exercise an average of 168 minutes per week. Dog walking lowers stress more than walking alone.
DOGS HELP PREVENT DISEASES
Dogs help slash the risk of many terminal illnesses, plus slow down the disease’s progression.
Dogs can sniff out disease long before a high-tech machine or blood test, thanks to the body’s chemical cues. A dog’s sense of smell is up to a hundred thousand times times more sensitive than a human’s.
Dogs can also detect certain health issues in humans and alert their owners to the illness’s onset through various behavioral cues. These conditions include changes in blood sugar and blood pressure, melanoma, migraine headaches, and heart attacks.
Household dogs can be trained to detect early breast and lung cancer between 88 percent and 97 percent of the time by sniffing a human’s breath. Dogs can also smell ketones on the breath and in the urine of diabetics when blood sugar is high; they detect this smell when glucose levels drop.
Seniors who own dogs make fewer visits to the doctor and are more physically active. Pet owners over age sixty-five make almost a third fewer visits to their general practitioner than those who don’t have pets.
Elderly dog owners are four times less likely to suffer from depression than those without dogs.
DOGS CHASE AWAY LONELINESS
Playing with a dog and holding his gaze can cause a hormone surge of oxytocin that makes you and the dog happier; it also reduces anxiety. The hormone is linked to friendship, infant care, bonding, and romantic love in humans; plus, it quiets stress, fights depression, and breeds trust. People who hold their dog’s gaze for longer than two and a half minutes consider their relationship to be more satisfying than short-term gazers.
Dogs, like humans, often look left toward the right side of human faces, since it exhibits emotions more accurately and intensely than the left. This behavior is called left-gaze bias, because the left side of the brain controls these displays of emotion. Some think dogs adapted this behavior during hundreds of years of domestication, in an effort to make sense of their owners’ emotions. When we look into the eyes of a dog that trusts us, we feel less lonely because we see a creature that’s trying equally hard to connect right back.
Some dog owners can fondly discriminate between their pet’s smell and that of a dog that isn’t theirs. When blindfolded, study participants correctly identified the blanket on which their dog slept for three consecutive nights, when compared to stranger dogs of a similar sex, age, and breed. (Bianca’s blanket would smell like fresh biscuits. I’d know her scent anywhere!)
Nursing home residents feel less lonely after visiting with a dog alone, versus with other people.
DOGS LOOK OUT FOR KIDS
Studies show that kids who care for pets are more nurturing, empathetic, and socially competent; at school, they’re more popular with peers.
Children who live with dogs are less likely to develop animal-related allergies later in life and less likely to develop eczema, asthma, and allergies to dust and pollen. Five- to seven-year-old dog owners also have fewer sick days at school, since pets may help boost a child’s immune system.
Five- and six-year-olds are 50 percent less likely to be overweight or obese if they own a dog, compared to those of the same age who don’t own one.
Ask Dr. Z!
What does it mean when my dog …
Q: Cocks his head when I talk to him?
A: Dogs receive slightly different signals from each ear due to the separation between them. Cocking their heads may enable them to get the best “stereo” sound from all angles, so they can better understand what it is you’re trying to tell or ask them.
Stephen L. Zawistowski, Ph.D., CAAB, is a certified animal behaviorist and an executive vice president and science adviser for the ASPCA. Lucky for us, he also offered to answer every quirky dog behavior question I could think to throw at him. You’ll find these questions, and his answers, in the “Ask Dr. Z!” boxes that are sprinkled throughout this book. Dr. Z’s assessments are based on his expertise and experience. Remember that every dog is different, but I was thrilled to see how many of the explanations applied to Bianca and her friends.
How to Emotionally Prepare for a Dog
Of course, it’s important to choose a dog based on your practical lifestyle: where you live, how active you are, if there are children in your home, and so on. And we’ll devote time to these scenarios later in the chapter. But what most people don’t do, and should do, is take a really good look at their emotional expectations to help inform their dog decision, too. A dog takes up space in your life and in your heart. You don’t want to feel disappointed when the dog you’ve chosen for its convenient size and polished looks also acts aloof or stubborn.
To that end, I asked Irene Deitch, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with pet owners, to outline what you should know about yourself before sharing your life with a dog:
Recognize your own emotional needs. Are you a bleeding heart? Looking for a patient and attentive confidant? Personally, I appreciate a little empathy in a dog. Last year I fell down the stairs while wearing a new pair of heels, and Bianca ran over and began to aggressively lick my left foot. Sure enough, that was the foot that was broken.
Anticipate the dog’s role in your life. Would you prefer unconditional love or an exercise partner? Are you controlling or relaxed? If you’ve just left your parents’ home, are an empty nester, or don’t plan to have children, you may want to choose a dog that satisfies a need to nurture. If you’d like a status symbol to show off at parties or carry in your bag, an exotic breed may be the way to go.
Be ready to share your expectations with a breeder or rescue facility. Acknowledge and welcome another person’s role in helping you find a dog that’s right for you. When the time comes, you’ll need to openly volunteer your needs and wants, but realize that experts can help you choose a dog that suits your lifestyle and personality.
Trust your instincts. In most relationships, we spend time with people before we decide what roles they’ll play in our lives. But with dogs, most of us don’t have this opportunity (unless you foster first), so let self-recognition fuel your research and decision. Being able to follow your own intuition is also really important when forging a rapport between you and your dog, so consider this prep work for bonding efforts down the road.
Why Do People Look Like Their Dogs?
How often do you see people who look or act like their dogs? I don’t think many people would say Bianca resembles either Howard or me … but then again, Howard does snore loudly, like Bianca, and some days I feel really chubby. No surprise, then, that Dr. Deitch says a lot of people subconsciously cozy up to animals that share related traits. She says the reason for this is no different than it is for couples who look alike or friends who share mannerisms. Like attracts like, and this creates an immediate and automatic comfort zone, even if we don’t realize it at the time.
Solving Seven Dog Debacles Before They Occur
If you have any fears about what to expect as a dog owner, Dr. Deitch says it helps to feel that the problems you anticipate are realistic but manageable. I pulled a survey from PetPlace.com that asked users: “What’s the worst thing about owning a dog?” Below are my top seven answers to those problems, using some help from Dr. Deitch. Use this list to resolve common issues before they happen to you. You’ll have seven fewer worries to keep you up at night.
7. Pet Odors: “Dog smell” is a hindrance only to the very sensitive. Even then your nose will adjust, much like it does when you work in a place with a distinct smell, or get used to a roommate’s perfume after you’ve moved in together. Remember the study about owners who recognize their dog’s scent? They identify it fondly. But when your dog’s isn’t so positive, Dr. Deitch says practical sprays and DIY remedies are a simple solution. For accidents, I’ve personally had amazing success with Nature’s Miracle pet stain and odor remover, which works quickly, and is easy to use. As with any odor, the secret is to remove the smell’s source and not cover it up with a Glade PlugIn.
6. Aggression: This is a complex issue that’s best resolved by a professional called in to specifically modify your dog’s temperament (see “When to Hire a Trainer Versus a Behaviorist” on page 146 for more). But in general, Dr. Deitch wants you to realize that a dog’s behavior is both nurture and nature; pit bulls, for instance, can be very gentle if they’re properly trained and reared by a warm soul (chaining and physical punishment are never the solution, no matter how aggressive your dog is). If you detect hostile tendencies, behavior modification can be very effective. Dr. Deitch adds that you should be aware of dog aggression, but don’t worry unless it becomes a setback—and know that most of the time, there is a practical solution that doesn’t involve the pound.
5. Barking or Whining: Dr. Deitch says this may be more problematic in an apartment building than in a house, simply for noise reasons, but know that all dogs are territorial—and barking when a dog hears a noise or someone at the door is normal. Of course, stopping when you ask him to stop is also expected. When you eventually meet with the adoption counselors at shelters or breeders, ask them which dogs are more prone to barking than others and what situations might provoke this (some dogs bark at birds, others at the TV). If you find that your dog is barking for food or attention, or if barking accompanies separation anxiety or aggression, a trainer can help you resolve it. Eventually, you’ll learn to understand what your dog’s barks mean without help. (See “Listening to Your Dog” on page 139 for more on how to decode barks, whines, and howls once he’s in your care.)
4. Potty Mistakes: If he’s not already housebroken, you’ll need to housebreak your dog shortly after you bring him home. Creating a regimented potty schedule will help this process. Dr. Deitch says dogs can make potty mistakes for any number of reasons, but once you get to the root of the problem, it’s rarely a situation that can’t be resolved.
3. Cost of Medical Care: If you’re nervous about money matters, start by taking two initial precautions: 1) save for your dog and 2) buy pet insurance. Dr. Deitch says singles and couples without kids may be more liquid and may not need to make changes to their budget, but if your dog is part of a more financially taxed unit, you may want to save. See the box on “How Will I Deal with Time and Cost Concerns?” on page 18 for more on this.
2. Pet Hair: Dr. Deitch suggests researching hypoallergenic dogs if you’re concerned about allergies. (President Obama, for instance, chose a Portuguese Water Dog because one of his daughters is allergic.) If you’re worried about a hairy mess, you should look for low-shedding dogs. Note that hypoallergenic dogs and low-shedding dogs are not the same. See “What You Should Know About Hypoallergenic Dogs” on page 34 for more.
1. Boarding or Finding a Sitter: In my experience, this is a problem only if you wait till the last minute to find a dog sitter or an open kennel. Instead, Dr. Deitch recommends designating a few pet sitters before you even bring a dog home. Beyond professional facilities, I’ve found that responsible teens are game for dog sitting, as are friends from out of town who don’t mind watching a dog in exchange for an informal “vacation” at your house. Some dog walkers are associated with boarding facilities, too, and will fill in, in a pinch. For more on this topic, see “Collect Your Contacts Before You Need to Use Them” on page 67.
How Will You Deal with Time and Cost Concerns?
Dr. Deitch says the two most typical concerns that her clients discuss with her before getting a dog are related to time and expenses. She adds that the best way to handle your angst is to tackle the problems logistically. The therapist’s take on both:
PROBLEM #1: MANAGING TIME
Dr. Deitch says: Before getting a dog, recognize that he can live up to an average age of fifteen years and require stimulation throughout the day. The degree to which a dog needs this can depend on his breed, age, sex, and temperament. It may feel like a lot at first, but will soon become part of your routine. Research the needs of breeds you like, and think about how they relate to your schedule, so there are few surprises. (See “Choose a Dog with the Right Activity Level for You” on page 30 for more on exercise demands, if that’s part of your concern.)
PROBLEM #2: MANAGING COSTS
Dr. Deitch says: This is a personal issue that’s often dictated by where and how you live. According to the ASPCA, in most cities, new dog owners spend about two thousand dollars during their pet’s first year at home. (It does not include the cost of the dog.) This cost includes food, medical care, insurance, training, and accessories. Future expenses, however, won’t include initial expenses like training or a crate, so expect this number to slice in half (about $700 to $1,000) after the first year. If money is a concern, consider shelter adoptions, which will be less pricey. At shelters, dogs cost only a few hundred dollars (at most) and are often spayed or neutered when you get them (some shelters, like NSALA, throw in additional exams, tests, and classes for free; in exchange, many appreciate a donation, though it isn’t necessary). Dogs that come from breeders often start around $1,000, depending on the breed; this cost includes initial health screenings, plus official paperwork about your dog and his breed. Finally, be sure to choose indulgences wisely (think: Burberry dog coat versus an American Apparel tee). For updated information about how much food, medical care, and other expenses cost annually, visit ASPCA.org’s “Pet Care Costs” page for small-, medium-, and large-dog breakdowns. To review specifics about health insurance, see “Why Health Insurance Is Important” on page 192.
How to Mentally Prepare for a Dog
Before you even decide where to get your dog, figure out how basic lifestyle, care and maintenance, financial, and pet characteristic considerations will impact your day-to-day life. Julie Shaw, senior animal behavior technologist for the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, kindly offered us the questionnaire she uses when counseling people on how to choose a dog (below). Your adoption facility or breeder may ask you to fill out a similar form or review some of the same topics before you meet, but spend time answering these in advance. If you’re raising the dog with another person, ask him/her to participate so you’re on the same page.
Are there other pets in your household?________________Have you had pets in the past?________________How often do adults visit?________________How often do children or teens visit?________________How hectic would you say your current lifestyle is?________________Does anyone in your family have special needs?________________Is anyone in your home allergic to animals?________________Are there any major family changes in your near future? Think: new baby, moving, divorce, etc.________________
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Do you live in a house, an apartment, on a farm, or elsewhere?________________What is your approximate yard size?________________What type of fencing is around your yard?________________Where will your dog spend most of its time? (indoors, outdoors, 50/50)________________How will a dog be managed in your backyard? (fence, tie, not sure)________________What will your pet’s indoor areas include?
Access to what rooms and furniture?________________Where will your pet sleep?________________How long will your pet be left alone during the day?________________Where will your pet be kept when you’re not home?________________How much time do you plan on interacting with your dog daily? (training, playing, exercise, etc.)________________Prioritize three activities you’d like to do with your pet. (jogging, swimming, agility training, etc.)________________How often will you walk your pet off your property for mental stimulation?________________Who will be in charge of feeding your dog?________________Who will be in charge of cleaning up after your dog?________________How often do you plan to work with your pet on training?________________If you’re acquiring a puppy, will you take him to socialization classes?________________Do you plan on crate training your dog?________________Who will be responsible for administering your pet’s medical care?________________How would you prefer to have your pet trained? (private, group class, at a training facility, etc.)________________What will you do with your pet when you travel?________________
How much are you budgeting monthly for your pet’s food?________________How much are you willing to pay for your pet initially?________________Do you plan on spaying or neutering your pet?________________How much are you budgeting to spend annually on your pet’s medical care?________________Which of the pet sources are you considering? (rescue, breeder, etc.)________________
What other animals will your pet interact with—both yours and others?________________What’s your purpose for getting a dog? (family pet, child’s pet, breeding, show, hunting, etc.)________________What breeds are you considering?________________Has someone in the house owned a puppy under six months old?________________What age would you like your pet to be when you acquire it?________________Are you interested in training your pet?________________How tolerable will you be of housetraining problems?________________What about shyness with strangers/visitors?________________Aloofness with family?________________Excitability?________________Demanding attention?________________Jumping on people?________________Digging in the yard?________________Chewing/destruction?________________Excessive vocalization?________________How often do you plan to groom your pet at home?________________How important is it to you that your pet guards your home?________________What size pet do you prefer?________________How important is it to you that your pet wants to sit in your lap, follow you around, etc.?________________Would you have your pet professionally groomed?________________How much does hair on your clothing or furniture bother you?________________
Make Your Life Stage a Priority
Your life stage refers to your marriage, parenting, and career status, among other social details. Isabelle Hamel, head trainer and behavior consultant at North Shore Animal League America (NSALA), says that knowing the limits and freedoms of your life stage can help you make a wise dog choice. It’s also smart to imagine what your world will be like fifteen years from now and what function your dog will play in it. To help with this exercise, Isabelle describes the following possible scenarios and dog care considerations. Find the situation that sounds most like yours (present and future). What kind of dog owner will you be?
You are single
What to consider: You have your own place and want your own pet. But having a dog can be time-consuming and inconvenient if you aren’t used to this type of responsibility. Who will feed and walk him if you go out after work? If you want to sleep in after a late night, will you still do an early-morning potty walk? If you travel for business, do you know someone who can care for your dog? If you rent, does your landlord allow dogs?
You just bought your first house
What to consider: A change of environment can trigger temporary behavior problem in new pets. Will you be tolerant during this transition if the dog poops on newly carpeted floors or damages molding? Is your new neighborhood conducive to raising a dog? Does your home-owner’s insurance cover the breed you want to get?
You are part of a couple who doesn’t have children
What to consider: When couples decide they don’t want children or aren’t ready for a baby, they often adopt a pet. Some treat the animal as though he is a child, but so much coddling can be a problem should you decide to have a baby down the road. A pet that’s been the center of attention and allowed in bed and on furniture may suddenly find that his home environment has altered—and so have the rules. Dogs are creatures of habit, and since their life is typically limited to your home and yard, they’re very sensitive to change. If this is you, immediately place your dog in a routine that won’t change, even if your family does. Set rules that provide a dog with stability; you can learn how to introduce him to a child when and if the time comes.
You have already started a family
What to consider: Dogs need to be taught manners and boundaries, because some can be rough with children when they’re still adolescents themselves. Will your schedule allow for this? Can you afford the added expense of a dog? Is there any chance your child may be allergic or afraid of a new pet? Expose your children to a variety of animals before committing to a long-term relationship. This will give you an opportunity to monitor your children’s interactions while keeping an eye out for allergic reactions. As your children grow, so do their social lives. Will you provide your pet with early socialization so he acts appropriately around all kids? Who will care for your pet when you’re at work and your children are at school?
You have grown kids who are about to leave home
What to consider: You’re inching close, or have already entered, the empty-nest life stage. Your kids are seldom home and will soon have lives of their own. Caring for a pet can give you a sense of purpose while providing company. But you’ll also experience the freedom that comes with having time away from kids. Will you want to be home for a pet? If your teen originally wanted the pet, what will happen when he leaves for college? Will the pet have to leave home as well?
You are retired
What to consider: How will your life change now that your time is your own? Do you enjoy traveling, or do you like to stay at home? Will the dog be able to travel with you? Keep in mind that flying is a risk for dogs. (Many airlines are not equipped to safely and comfortably board them; plus, your dog may not adjust well to the altitude change.) If the dog stays behind, do you have boarding options? How well will the animal tolerate confinement and separation? Maybe your time will be divided between two homes. Are both suited for a pet? Will the dog travel well in a car?
You are a senior
What to consider: A puppy may seem like a good idea until you realize how exhausting it is to train one. Because baby dogs get into everything, a lot of time will be spent bending down to clean up papers or accidents, or retrieving objects from a dog’s mouth, and if you don’t choose the right dog, you could be scratched or bruised when he wants attention. Plus, puppies tend to be fast-moving, and precautions need to be taken to prevent escape. They also need regular vigorous exercise to help avoid behavior problems (retrieving games or playdates are easy on seniors). If you like to walk, choose a dog that’s easy to control—either with training devices or by choosing an older or smaller and more manageable dog. Mixed breeds, which NSALA calls mutt-i-grees, are fine dogs for seniors because they’re not bred for one particularly fierce task (such as hunting birds) and can have milder temperaments due to their mixed qualities. In fact, I encourage people to consider adopting an adult dog, since they’re usually trained, have all of their vaccinations, have passed the puppy stage, and will likely sleep through the night.
You are between life stages
What to consider: Being a foster parent. If you’re not ready to commit to a dog, think about fostering one from a shelter to see what it’s like to have an animal in your house. Test each other out. If you fall hard for this dog, you can talk to the shelter director about adopting him for good. If it’s not serendipitous, don’t worry; someone else will hopefully give him a loving home, and you can give another shelter pet a try!
Ask Dr. Z!
What does it mean when my dog …
Q: Refuses to leave my side when I’m pregnant?
A: Dogs can sense vulnerability, and they may recognize that the pregnant leader or role model is a little awkward while walking, and stick close by to take care of her. Dogs are very good at noticing changes in body language. Some experts also believe that dogs can smell the change in hormones that occurs in a woman’s body when she’s pregnant. This may cause him to stay close.
Decide Between a Puppy and a Full-Grown Dog
Though it’s a great feeling to nuzzle a puppy, raising one isn’t all cuddles and ear licks. Baby dogs, like baby humans, are a lot of work. And while neither puppies nor adult dogs are without their challenges, you may be more adept at caring for, and bonding with, one over the other. Julie Shaw helped break down what each option can entail:
Require time and supervision, housetraining, socialization, constant exercise, and the patience to navigate normal puppy problems such as teething, destructiveness, mouthing, and nipping.
Are especially vulnerable, because they’ve just left the smells and littermates that color everything they know. It’s imperative that you have empathy for these little guys.
Are most influenced by socialization between four and sixteen weeks old (this is when socialization has the biggest impact on behavior). So as a puppy owner, you’ll have the most control over his behavior during this time. You should also expose the puppy to as many stimuli as possible: sounds, smells, and sights, including wheels, cats, dogs, water, and children.
Are most challenging as adolescents, around six to eighteen months. A lot of adolescent dogs end up at shelters because they’re most feisty during this age, so constant socialization and training are necessary.
Adult Dogs …
May not require as much training as a puppy, since they can arrive at a shelter with some manners and housebreaking experience.
Are often calmer because they’ve reached maturity. Three can be a magical age!
Don’t allow you to have control over their initial socialization, since they spent time in another home, so you must learn to understand their behavioral baggage and ultimately deal with the reasons an adult dog is no longer with his original owners. These may include bad or very little training, poor socialization, aggression, separation anxiety, and neglect.
Can already be rehabilitated when they come from some rescue organizations (NSALA rehabilitates as many dogs as they can before finding them new homes). These shelters spend time with an abandoned dog to train and gather as much behavioral information as they can before placing him in a home. Not all shelters are this invested, but if rehabilitation is important to you, then find a shelter that does this or offers to work with new owners to help train their dog and modify unappealing behaviors.
FROM PUPPY TO ADULT: A BEHAVIORAL TIME LINE
If you decide to bring home a puppy, you can anticipate a number of behavioral changes that happen quickly. Katenna Jones, CAAB, CABC, CPDT, a humane educator and animal behaviorist with the American Humane Association (AHA), takes us through important milestones.
Three to six weeks: Puppies can be considered the dog equivalent of toddlers when they start to explore their environments and practice interacting with their moms and littermates.
Five to six weeks: Puppies can begin introductory training but shouldn’t be separated from mom and littermates until eight to nine weeks to ensure proper social behavior.
Four to fourteen weeks: This is the optimal time for socializing a puppy with other dogs, animals, new places, and new people. Limit interaction with other animals until after the puppies have been vaccinated.
Twelve weeks to six months: Puppies are considered juveniles at this time and will start to test their independence and boundaries. This can be very frustrating, as puppies are trying to figure out what they can get away with. This is a prime period to hit training and behavior classes, since it’s the most crucial time for developing a well-behaved adult.
Also around six months: Puppies begin to sexually mature, so they should be spayed or neutered by this time (if you do not intend to breed the dog) to avoid exploration of sexual behavior, such as humping and marking (peeing on an area to establish territory via scent).
Six to eighteen months: A puppy is now an adolescent, which is considered by many to be the most difficult period, since many dogs practice bad habits that they’ve developed while growing and changing. A lot of adolescent dogs end up at shelters because they’re most challenging during this age—if they don’t have adequate coaching. Never give up on a feisty dog; continue to socialize and train him, and stick to it!
Eighteen months: Dogs are considered physically and socially mature around eighteen months. After this time, some dogs will lose many of those frustrating puppy behaviors and begin developing into well-behaved, mature adults. Some breeds begin to calm down at this time, while others exhibit rambunctious behavior much longer, so it is critical to choose the right breed to suit your lifestyle early on.
Choose a Dog with the Right Activity Level for You
My good friend Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at NSALA, says that pairing a dog with the activity level you’ll be able to offer him is crucial when getting a dog. If a canine isn’t well exercised, he can become depressed, hyperactive, overweight, anxious, destructive, or aggressive. Note: Exercising your dog at the right activity level doesn’t include short potty walks, which happen four times a day. A dog may require low, medium, or high levels of activity based on his temperament, age, size, and/or breed. Involving your dog in your daily lifestyle—for example, taking him on errands—will make his exercise needs feel like less of a burden to you. Take a look at what each of these levels mean, and assess how much time and energy you can realistically devote to giving a dog the activity he requires.
ACTIVITY LEVEL: Low
Needs: At least a brisk walk around the block once a day
Low exercise doesn’t mean no exercise! Dogs need activity for physical and mental stimulation.
Make no assumptions about exercise needs based on a dog’s size (this is a common mistake). A Mastiff and a Great Dane, both large breeds, require less activity than a Jack Russell Terrier, a small dog.
ACTIVITY LEVEL: Moderate
Needs: About twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day
Moderate-energy dogs require owners to follow a consistent regime, as much as high-energy dogs do. It’s tempting to fall behind if your dog’s exercise needs aren’t on either extreme end of the exercise spectrum.
Consider using doggie day care, a dog walker, or a private caretaker service to provide daily exercise that your schedule may not allow.
ACTIVITY LEVEL: High
Needs: More than thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day
A high-activity dog doesn’t “need” a yard; it only makes life easier for you.
If you live in the suburbs, consider fences and doggie doors so your dog can go out when he wants. (I hate electric fences and think they do more harm than good. They don’t work on all breeds, can fail, can provoke behavior and aggression problems, and can give a dog a false sense of security.)
Don’t leave a dog unattended outside. No dog will exercise alone in a yard for any length of time unless he is acting out of frustration. It’s also not safe to leave a dog outside alone, since he can accidentally escape, come in contact with a wild animal, or pose a threat to a stranger who walks into his yard.
Consider using doggie day care, a dog walker, or a private caretaker service to provide daily exercise that your schedule may not allow.
Tips for Owners That Apply to Dogs of All Activity Levels
Be honest with yourself about your dog’s needs, and avoid getting a dog that requires extensive exercise if you’re not able to provide it.
Pair your hobbies to your dog’s physique. Really active owners who want to run or hike with their dogs should choose a dog with strong legs. Some small dogs have weak hind legs and need to limit exercise, so don’t expect to win marathons with, say, a Dachshund in tow.
While exercise can help a dog live a healthier life, as with people, it doesn’t always determine life span. Studies show that regularly exercised dogs live up to 30 percent longer than their inactive counterparts, but on the whole, smaller dogs often live longer than big dogs.
Decide Between a Purebred, a Mixed Breed, and a Designer Breed
Once you’ve figured out how much energy and time you can devote to engaging your dog in activities, start researching what types of dogs might best fit your lifestyle. Here’s some information that should help you narrow your search to either a purebred, a mixed breed, or a designer breed dog.
GENERAL PUREBRED QUALITIES
Dogs that belong to a recognized strain that’s been established by breeding individual dogs of an unmixed lineage over many generations
Fixed and predictable dog genes
Most likely to meet both parents
The purchase price can be expensive
GENERAL MIXED BREED (AKA MUTT-I-GREE) QUALITIES
Dogs whose parents are from mixed or different breeds
Random and unfixed genes
Unlikely that you’ll meet both parents
Price will be lower
Generally speaking, mutt-i-grees have fewer genetic medical issues, since genes are mixed
Mutt-i-grees weren’t bred for specific tasks, so behavior will be more difficult to predict
GENERAL DESIGNER BREED QUALITIES
Also called a hybrid or a crossbreed, a designer dog has ancestry in two different purebred dog breeds
Hybrid dogs like the Labradoodle (Lab + Poodle) or Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel + Poodle) have coined their own category, but they’re considered an unpredictable “breed”
Genetic benefits often mirror those of mixed breeds; few of their characteristics are fixed
What You Should Know About Hypoallergenic Dogs
Hypoallergenic dogs are in high demand, judging by the number of people who ask me about them! Most assume a dog’s coat causes an allergic reaction in humans, but there are really three ways people can be allergic to dogs: through coat, dander, or saliva (when a dog licks them). And when most have an allergic reaction to a shedding dog, they’re actually reacting to the dead skin cells that flake onto the coat—not to the hair or fur itself.
Allergies vary from person to person and from one dog to another, even within the same breed. Though some doctors advise parents of kids with allergies not to get a dog, studies show that early exposure can strengthen a child’s immune system against allergies and asthma.
While there are no breeds that don’t shed at all, some breeds are less allergy-provoking than others. This is either because they’re low-shedding or because they’re low-dander. And if you’re allergic to a dog’s saliva, well, it doesn’t matter what kind of hair the dog has!
People with allergies often find comfort in what are known as non-shedding breeds, which tend to be curly-coated, like Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, and Bichon Frises. Minimal shedders are terriers like Soft-Coated Wheatens and Schnauzers. Low-shedding dogs include Italian Greyhounds, Chihuahuas, and Malteses. Here are some of the most hypoallergenic breeds:
Coton de Tulear
Irish Water Spaniel
Kerry Blue Terrier
Native American Indian Dog
Portuguese Water Dog
Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier
Spanish Water Dog
West Highland White Terrier
Wirehaired Fox Terrier
TOP TWENTY MOST POPULAR DOG BREEDS
To help match your needs to a breed, Dr. Burch broke down the pros and cons of the top twenty most popular dog breeds in the U.S. She also identified three of the more common priorities that dog owners have: which breeds are hypoallergenic, which are good with kids, and how much activity a dog breed usually requires. As with everything, these are generalizations; most key characteristics are unique to each dog. However, I hope the information below will help you in your search.
Good with Kids
1: LABRADOR RETRIEVERS
Pros: Highly trainable, eager to please. Popular service and agility dogs.
Cons: Since Labs were originally hunting dogs, they can run for hours and pull on a leash. These are high-energy pups!
2: YORKSHIRE TERRIERS
Pros: Adaptable, bright, and perky toy breed. They’re good in apartments, and they travel well.
Cons: Because Yorkies are so cute, they’re easy to spoil. If this happens, they can be ornery and snappy.
3: GERMAN SHEPHERD
Pros: Known as police or military dogs but also dependable and loving as pets.
Cons: Can be aggressive if trained with punishment or mismanaged.
4: GOLDEN RETRIEVER
Pros: Highly intelligent, friendly, gentle. This breed’s a pleaser, so it’s easy to train.
Cons: Goldens can love you to a fault. They want constant play, attention, and activity.
Pros: You know him as Snoopy. Happy and friendly. Originally bred in packs to hunt for rabbits, beagles feel comfortable with humans and other dogs in a family.
Cons: Most problems for Beagles arise from being raised in the wrong setting. Because they’re bred to hunt and roam, Beagles can take off for miles. A Beagle’s hound bay is also noisy, and they love food, so as adult dogs, they can become overweight if their diet isn’t managed.
Pros: Attractive, muscular dogs that love people. They are very athletic and can often stand on their back legs and smack toward you with their paws—hence the name.
Cons: A Boxer’s playfulness could be a problem for someone who isn’t very active. They’re great with go-everywhere and do-everything families, as opposed to introverted apartment dwellers.
Pros: There’s a lot of variety here. Mini or standard, wire-haired or smooth. Dachshunds are lovable, playful, and good with children. They’re also easily adaptable to various living arrangements.
Cons: These dogs may bark a lot and, if not socialized, can be snappy. Their bodies are long and fit easily in small, tight spaces. Since they’re bred to dig tunnels and pull out badgers, they can also leave holes in the yard.
Pros: Sweet, calm, gentle, great with families. Require very little exercise.
Cons: Because their noses are smooshed in, Bulldogs easily overheat and often have breathing problems. Enter: wheezing, snoring, drooling, gas. Bulldogs also require a lot of maintenance, especially since their folds and wrinkles require daily cleaning.
Pros: Available in toy, miniature, and standard sizes. Poodles are very smart, very active, and need lots of exercise. Since they were bred to be retrieve birds from the water, it was once thought that leaving hair only around their joints would keep them limber in the water—hence the funny pom-pom cuts.
Cons: If the smaller dogs aren’t socialized, they can become shy. Coat requires lots of care.
10: SHIH TZU
Pros: This Chinese dog was once the prize pet of the upper class. They’re lively, alert, friendly, devoted. Bred for centuries to be a companion. Requires minimal exercise.
Cons: Not for rowdy children, and if training doesn’t begin early, they can be stubborn. Housetraining can also be a problem.
11: MINIATURE PINSCHER
Pros: Active, alert, obedient, friendly, willing to please. Great for seniors.
Cons: Noisy, yappy, barky like terriers. Can be a little argumentative with other dogs.
Pros: Devoted, loving, charming, highly intelligent, can live in an apartment, and require little exercise.
Cons: Chihuahuas can have housetraining issues. Sometimes they can snap at a person’s fingers (“finger snapping”) or bite when they’re afraid (“fear biting”).
Pros: Very trainable, highly intelligent, extroverted, active. Because they were bred to herd, Pomeranians are plucky, independent, and very spirited.
Cons: Tend to yap and can become spoiled and snappy if not socialized.
Pros: Though they were originally bred to drive cattle, Rottweilers are often police, service, obedience, or protection dogs. They need a job to do, or they can be trouble. They’re adaptable, predictable, and loyal to their families.
Cons: If you’re not in charge, they will be (“I’ll sit on the couch; you sit elsewhere”). Stubborn.
Pros: As far back as 400 B.C., Pugs were kept as pets in Buddhist monasteries. They are often playful, charming, outgoing, and loving toward kids and families. They’re sturdy little animals that require minimal exercise.
Cons: Without training, they can be stubborn. Like Bulldogs, Pugs have squashed faces, which leads to snoring, overheating, drooling, and gas.
16: GERMAN SHORTHAIRED POINTER
Pros: Bred to hunt birds, they require a lot of exercise from an active owner.
Cons: Not apartment dogs, and in the wrong setting, they can seem hyperactive; may look restless if kept indoors for too long. If bored, they can destroy furniture or bark excessively.
17: BOSTON TERRIER
Pros: Need moderate exercise, are easy to train, love to be with owners.
Cons: Can have dog-to-dog aggression, problems with housebreaking. Same smooshed-face and gas issues as Bulldog and Pug.
18: DOBERMAN PINSCHER
Pros: Once police, war, and tax collector dogs. Loyal, friendly, obedient, great with families.
Cons: Without training, can be territorial, aggressive, and restless indoors. Need lots of exercise.
19: SHETLAND SHEEPDOG
Pros: Attractive herding dogs from the Shetland Islands. Loyal, highly trainable, devoted to families. These dogs are quick to learn manners during obedience training.
Cons: If not properly socialized, can need behavior intervention for jumpiness. Bark a lot.
Pros: Gentle, affectionate, intelligent, playful. Great with families.
Cons: If spoiled and not trained, they’ll soil the house. Also, irritable snapping and excessive barking can be problematic.
Bad places to purchase Your dog
Before I jump into specifics about how to work with a responsible breeder or shelter, I need to mention the sources from which you should never purchase a dog: puppy mills, backyard breeders, and yes, pet stores. In an ideal world, this rule of paw would put all three out of business. Lisa Peterson, director of club communications with the AKC, helps me explain why.
Though everyone’s definition of a puppy mill is different, the general consensus is that they’re large-scale commercial breeding facilities. Some sources cite that there are an estimated 5,000 puppy mills in the U.S. that produce more than 500,000 puppies a year! These dogs are kept in cramped conditions, including chicken-coop cages, become poorly socialized to other dogs or humans, and can have severe disposition issues as a result. Puppy mill offspring are often riddled with sickness or other genetic problems when sold to dealers, who then sell them at pet and puppy stores. Inbreeding; zero medical care, exercise, and proper socialization; and poor diets cause these problems and more. And as you might expect, financial gain is at the heart of this trend. Lisa notes that mill puppies can be sold as purebreds to obtain higher prices, though the mills’ arbitrary breeding practices rarely qualify the dogs as such. Reputable breeders never sell puppies to dealers or pet stores. I have seen, firsthand during NSALA’s puppy mill rescues, the damage that these places do. I remember a Maltese that had never left her cage. When we opened the door, she crawled on the ground because walking was an unfamiliar action. It was heartbreaking.
Backyard breeders are smaller-scale breeders hungry to make cash from naive buyers. Lisa says they’re usually two random owners who breed their dogs to make puppies for profit; she adds that they differ from small hobby breeders in the lack of credibility of their paperwork and their unethical standards. If you opt for any breeding route, find someone who has put thought into the breed, is intent on improving the breed, and wants to create a new generation of dogs that are sound, healthy, and well behaved.
Please do not buy a dog from a pet store, since industry sources say that they often use dealers who get their dogs from puppy mills. If you choose to ignore my plea, Lisa says to at least demand that the store owner discuss and provide AKC papers on the dog. The AKC is the only purebred registry that inspects breeders who register with this nonprofit organization. If you see a dog at a store who is registered with kennel club names like APR, AKA, or any of the competing registries that are in the business of producing papers for profit, you shouldn’t trust the vendor. (Pet stores and crooked clubs seem to bank on the fact that three-letter acronyms will confuse consumers.) The AKC, however, donates their registration dollars to public education programs for responsible dog ownership and charity funds such as disaster relief.
Another responsible kennel club is the United Kennel Club (UKC). This is an international registry that recognizes more than three hundred breeds of dogs, so if you’re looking for a dog breed that isn’t registered with the AKC (say, an American Pit Bull Terrier), you can check with this organization’s website at UKCDogs.org to find legitimate breeders.
The Internet is a great place to research breed prospects, but Lisa doesn’t recommend it as a spot to purchase one. If you must buy a dog from someone who doesn’t live near you, ask for references and speak to others who’ve purchased dogs from this breeder. She says you should also ask if the breeder is a member of an AKC-affiliated club and contact that club to verify membership.
If you find a breeder through a website, you shouldn’t send money without speaking to this person on the phone and checking his or her references and credentials first. Corrupt breeders and scams can present themselves through professional-looking sites that draw you in with photos of rolling hills and cute dogs that don’t exist. Lisa says to also be wary of breeders who insist you wire money and call to ask for even more wired money to cover last-minute fees. Sites without phone numbers, and with credit card emblems, also point to bogus breeders, as do sites that advertise more than three breeds.
HOW TO PURCHASE A DOG FROM A RESPONSIBLE BREEDER
Your relationship with a potential breeder should be long-lasting. This is the person who’s bringing a new member of your family into the world, so you want to feel that she’s responsive, open, and interested in you and your home. No question is off-limits for anyone in this scenario. Lisa offered these suggestions for getting started:
Attend a dog show, visit AKC.org, or call the AKC at 919-233-9797. Contact the breeder referral officer for the breed’s parent club to find a kennel club in the U.S. All-breed kennel clubs in your area are also a good option; these are listed on the AKC site as well. The AKC recognizes 161 purebreds, each of which has a national breed or parent club that’s comprised of the breed’s owners. As members, these breeders sign a code of ethics about responsible standards. If you’d like to rescue a purebred, the happy medium between breeders and adoption, visit the “Purebred Rescue Groups” directory on AKC.org.
Don’t be offended if a breeder isn’t immediately responsive to your initial call or e-mail. Most hobby breeders have full-time jobs and don’t always have available puppies. Be selective. Find a breeder who’s knowledgeable and makes you feel comfortable. On the flip side, don’t be put off if your breeder seems to care too much! You want her to ask where you live, your work hours, if you have children, etc. Talk about what you expect from a dog so she can suggest a sex, housebreaking tips, and the like. This shows she’s invested in you and your dog’s future together.
Visit the breeder’s home or kennel—if she doesn’t invite you over, invite yourself. You may not be able to visit the puppies during their first eight weeks to keep exposure to sickness minimal, so don’t see this as a danger sign. Instead, make sure the breeder’s home or kennel is clean, odor-free, and responsibly maintained. A breeder should appear proud of what she does and want to show you around. Dogs and puppies should be clean, well fed, lively, and friendly. Look for signs of malnutrition such as protruding ribs, or illness such as runny nose or eyes, coughing, lethargy, and skin sores. Ask to meet at least one of the puppy’s parents to get an idea what your dog’s future temperament and appearance will be. Half of a puppy’s DNA comes from his mom, so a good feeling about the mom should translate to a good feeling about the puppy. Don’t be alarmed if the dog’s father doesn’t live with the breeder, but do ask to see photos and AKC documentation and health clearances.
Pay attention to how the dogs and puppies interact with their breeder. Does the breeder seem to genuinely care for the puppies and adult dogs? Neither dogs nor puppies should shy away from the breeder; they should also be outgoing with strangers.
Ask about the health of your puppy and his parents. Breeders should be honest about the breed’s strengths and weaknesses, and knowledgeable about any genetic diseases that can affect their breed—plus what’s being done to avoid them. Breeders should share proof of health screenings of the parents and the puppy, including OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) and CERF (Canine Eye Registration Form) certificates.
Establish a rapport with the breeder. This person will be a resource and mentor throughout the dog’s life. Six years later, I still call Bianca’s breeder to ask Bulldog-related questions, and she still calls us to check in on Bianca. Don’t be afraid to contact the breeder with even the simplest question; he or she wants to hear from the owners and learn how they’re enjoying their puppy.
Don’t expect to bring a puppy home until he is eight to twelve weeks old. Puppies need ample time to mature and socialize with their mothers and littermates. During this time, breeders should be willing to answer any questions you have and should ask many of you, too. They should want to make sure their dogs are headed to wonderful homes with people who’ve made the necessary preparations.
Don’t leave the breeder without the appropriate documentation of the dog’s pedigree: The words “American Kennel Club” as well as the AKC logo should be clearly visible on the document. Among this paperwork should be an application to register your dog with the AKC, which you’ll need to fill out and mail in on your own. Question a breeder who refuses or hesitates to give you papers, wants to charge you more for AKC papers, offers papers from a registry other than the AKC, or tells you he will mail the papers at a later date. You should leave with health certificates for the puppy and his parents, a family tree, and a bill of sale. A breeder may also ask you to sign a contract that says if certain care conditions aren’t met or you become unable to keep the puppy, the breeder will reclaim him.
The AKC inspects about five thousand kennels a year, and breeders found to have major kennel deficiencies may lose AKC privileges (the ability to register dogs or compete in events). In some cases, they can incur fines, with an indefinite suspension of privileges; the AKC may also contact law enforcement. A quick call to AKC customer service will ensure your breeder is in good standing.
Beware of breeders who seem preoccupied with the financial aspect of the transaction. A reputable breeder will be more concerned with how appropriate your home is for the dog than when he’s getting paid. However, make sure everyone knows how and when the puppy will be paid for—in writing. If he’s shipped long distance, pay for half up front and half upon receiving the dog (after your own vet signs off on the puppy’s health).
Beware of websites that offer 1) more than three breeds that 2) can be purchased right away. First, Lisa says that most responsible breeders tend to focus on one or two breeds. Second, since gestation and socialization of a litter take months before individual puppies can be placed with new owners, it’s highly unlikely that your perfect puppy will be available for shipping the very day you call.
SHOULD YOU TAKE A BREEDER SERIOUSLY IF SHE HAS DOG DECOR?
Lisa says that you shouldn’t be scared off by random dog paraphernalia in and around a breeder’s home or kennel. Though Norwich Terrier flags, garden gnomes, and hand-woven tapestries may not be your taste, they don’t make a breeder’s pedigree any less credible. In fact, since the majority of responsible breeders receive trophies and porcelain bells for their efforts, these should be signs of encouragement! Lisa assures me that dog decor demonstrates a breeder’s passion for his or her animals.
How to Adopt a Dog from a Shelter
I have a place in my heart for shelters. Suzydog, our first family mutt, came from a Pittsburgh shelter, and some of the most generous people I know are responsible for rescuing, rehabilitating, and finding first-class homes for abandoned or mistreated dogs. Though each shelter does as much as its funding allows, spay/neuter programs, vet services, disaster relief, adoptathons, fostering, and hospital and senior outreach are regular priorities. Here, Joanne from NSALA answers basic questions about how to rescue a dog of your own.
Q: Are some shelters better than others?
A: While some shelters have more resources than others, this should not impact the inherent quality of the animals. Many shelters operate on a shoestring budget and depend largely on the help of volunteers. They aim to provide maximum help and as much information on their animals as possible. In the end, all shelters have the noblest of intentions: to help others adopt homeless animals and save their lives.
Q: What information should I trade with a shelter worker?
A: When you meet with a shelter worker or volunteer, share and gather as much information as possible. Explain what you’re looking for and ask for suggestions. Find out what kind of medical screening the shelter applied to the dog, and ask if he’s been vaccinated and spayed/neutered. At most shelters, you can expect to adopt an animal that’s been medically examined, vaccinated, temperament-tested, and spa
How to Choose, Train, Groom, Nurture, Feed, and Care for Your New Best Friend
Oh My Dog
How to Choose, Train, Groom, Nurture, Feed, and Care for Your New Best Friend
Owning a dog is one of life’s great joys, but sometimes the challenges it brings can make even the most devoted dog lovers panic, throw up their hands, or feel completely overwhelmed. Before you get to the end of your leash, turn to this friendly and relatable reference that’s the next best thing to talking to a dog-owning friend who's seen it all.
In Oh My Dog, animal rights activist Beth Ostrosky Stern has compiled tips and invaluable advice from experts—and from her own experience as dogowner—to sooth concerns, answer questions big and small, and help you and your dog get the most out of your relationship. From the moment you even consider getting a dog, to caring for your old friend when his puppy years are far behind him, Oh My Dog covers every angle of dog ownership, including:
- Which breeds would be good match for me?
- What do I look for in a vet?
- How do I make sure our first night together is as stress-free as possible?
- What activities will help me bond with my dog?
- Is my dog showing sign of illness?
- What should I know before I head to a doggie day care or park?
- How do I read pet food labels?
- What should I do in an emergency?
Choc full of informative side bars, questionnaires, to-do lists, and much, much more, Oh My Dog is the answer-filled field guide for anybody who owns a dog or is considering getting one.
Beth Ostrosky Stern