Two or three weeks after adopting her Chesapeake Bay retriever puppy, Opus, from a shelter, Kristin Beaney was exhausted. Opus refused to sleep through the night, so while everyone else slept, Kristin found herself padding around the suburban darkness of West Newbury, Mass., following behind an exuberant pup and his impatient bladder.
As Beaney quickly discovered, bringing a dog into your life is a big step. Although they're fun, puppies can also be a handful. "If you do the right things, you can get through it," assures Heather Donnelly, manager of the Brockton shelter of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). "Then you're better prepared to live with this dog for 10 to 12 happy years."
Are You "Doggy?"
Before you even venture near the local animal shelter, make sure you're really ready to undertake the care of a dog. Ask yourself several questions and answer them honestly. Why do you want a dog? Can your lifestyle support his demands? Which breeds are most likely to fit the bill? Do you want a male or female? A puppy or an adult?
Then comes the biggest question of all. You need to evaluate how you feel about the true essence of dog ownership, best described as "dogness." Dogness is a combination of things. It's the slightly different odor that permeates your house once a dog moves in. It's the late-night runs to your veterinarian after your dog has ingested part of an electric wire. It's the way his leash fits into your hand as comfortably as a tennis racket once did.
Dogness isn't for everyone. In fact, some people need dogness like a carpenter needs termites. For example, once you get a dog, you can forget about spur-of-the-moment weekend getaways. Vacations for dog owners require careful choreography – finding a pet-friendly hotel or reputable boarding kennel, scheduling boarding, gathering the health records, and so on.
Maintaining a dog is a significant financial investment. Veterinary care can be expensive and unpredictably timed: a sudden problem like a simple fracture can cost several hundred dollars to repair. Dog food and incidentals like grooming, boarding fees and toys are also costly.
But the biggest investment you'll need to make is time. Plan on three 15-minute walks daily, at minimum. And, if you don't want paw prints on your walls and ceilings, you'll need to provide your dog with a daily period of vigorous exercise, perhaps throwing a ball or going for a run.
Get Your Home in Shape
Before you open your home to a dog, bring your place up to snuff, pooch-style. First, make sure your landlord, condo or co-op board will allow a dog. One of the biggest reasons dogs wind up in shelters is that they aren't allowed into their owners' apartments or houses. If you're planning to buy a large dog or one that needs ample exercise, you may need to fence your yard so he can play outdoors unsupervised. You also need to ensure that your dog's barking will not interfere with your neighbors' peace-of-mind – or yours!
You also need to set up an infrastructure for canine care. Spell out in advance who'll be feeding, walking, grooming and cleaning up after the dog and make sure all parties are in full agreement with the arrangement. If you're getting the dog for your children to take care of, be prepared: Even the most eager child bores easily, and the day-to-day care of the dog will probably end up as your responsibility.
Pup vs. Grownup
Bringing home an adult dog has advantages and disadvantages. A grownup usually knows the basics of domestic living – how to sit, stay and do his business outside. But he may come with emotional baggage from his former home. On the upside, though, his behavior patterns are set – an advantage for an owner that wants to be assured that he or she "clicks" with a new pet.
Raising a puppy is a lot of work – and, given the lifespan of most dogs, bringing home a pup means making a 10- or 15-year commitment. Housebreaking is difficult and cleaning up puddles and piles is no fun. At some time or another, almost every puppy chews – often beyond recognition – something that his owner values. Most puppies, particularly the large sporting breeds like Labrador retrievers, are energetic and require a lot of exercise. Perhaps the hardest part of raising a puppy is teaching him general etiquette, the nuts and bolts of living with an owner.
When considering a puppy, don't be so quick to choose the dog that's most overzealous when he greets you. Most likely, he is the most dominant of the litter; the one hiding in the corner is usually the most submissive. Either extreme should serve as a warning for future behavior, which isn't easy to change. Look for a pup that's more even-keeled.
The best age to obtain a puppy is 8 to 12 weeks, says Steven Thompson, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine. This is near the peak time for developing early socialization skills. Its bladder control should also be under better control by 10 to 12 weeks.
When choosing an adult dog or a puppy, examine him for obvious medical problems. Check his skin. Pay attention to any discharges from his eyes or nose. Red flags should also go up if he's coughing or if his ribs are showing. Also, be sure to ask what vaccinations the dog has received.
You'll also need to choose between a purebred and a mixed-breed dog. Purebred dogs come with canine "roadmaps" that spell out their personality traits, idiosyncrasies and health profiles. As a result of inbreeding, however, purebreds are often less hardy than mixed breeds, both physically and emotionally. Mixed breeds are also often less subject to the behavioral extremes seen in many purebred dogs.
If you've decided on a purebred dog, you'll need to select a breed compatible with your lifestyle and with your reasons for wanting a dog. With over 140 American Kennel Club (AKC)-recognized breeds, and many more breeds beyond this, there are a lot to choose from. If you want a rough-and-tumble dog to play with, for example, you're barking up the wrong tree if you get a lumbering basset hound. Looking for a mellow little house dog that's an easy keeper? Think about a Cavalier King Charles spaniel rather than a border collie, who would probably herd you around the house. Kids at home? Temperament, size, appearance and general breed characteristics – such as grooming requirements – must be taken into account when choosing a breed.
Gender is another important consideration. Male dogs - particularly those that aren't neutered - are more likely to roam and fight with other dogs. Male dogs often require longer walks because they tend to urinate in multiple locations. Female dogs, on the other hand, are pregnancy risks until they can be spayed.
Where to Find Your Dog
Dog shelters are a wonderful option for locating either a mixed-breed or a purebred dog; some 30 percent of shelter dogs are purebred. At most of the approximately 4,000 shelters in the United States, there are almost endless choices of dogs available in many varieties – ones you probably didn't even know existed. Adoption fees, if any, are nominal. And you'll feel good knowing you've saved a life.
Breeders are a good option if you want to know more about the background of your new dog; the AKC can refer you to a breeder near you (919-233-9767). When choosing a breeder, visit his or her kennel area. Are the parents on the premises? Are the conditions clean? Is the breeder the puppy's advocate, asking you questions, or does he seem more interested in a quick buck?
Pet shops are another available option but one that is not highly recommended. Pet shop pups, while generally purebred, often originate in puppy mills, and the dogs are often unhealthy and genetically unsound.