Puppy Diaries #6: To Spay or Not to Spay (6 Months)

Dear Diary,
Sommer is now six months old and has entered the dreaded “teenage” months. I’ve come to learn, somewhat to my dismay, that the “teen” phase lasts a good long time — from six months to about 18 months. Just yesterday, I had a common Pup Mom experience with my newly teenage dog. As I unpacked a new coffee maker on the living room floor, Sommer happily played with the cardboard and packing materials. After turning my attention to my husband for a few minutes of conversation, I turned back to the coffee maker, only to find the cord chewed to bits.

It’s a good thing she’s cute.

Now that Sommer is six months old, we’re not only in the rebellious teenage years, but we’re also reaching the age when many vets advise undertaking spaying (removal of ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus in females) or neutering (removal of testicles, for males). Six to nine months is considered the optimal age for these procedures by many veterinarians. Still, that’s simply a guideline, as dogs as young as eight weeks can be neutered if healthy, and dogs can be neutered as adults as well, although there’s a higher risk of post-operative complications as dogs get older, or if they’re overweight or have other health problems.

To be honest, I began my research into the pros and cons of spaying Sommer leaning toward spaying her. First and foremost, I have no desire to become a Pup Mom to a litter of new puppies. I’ve got my hands full with the one I have! Secondly, the shelters are full of unwanted dogs. Any pups that Sommer might have, even if I were to place them in homes, would add to the pet overpopulation problem this country already has, and would mean fewer homes available for dogs in shelters.

Here’s the reality: If we all spayed or neutered our pets, the shelter situation in this country would be much different. Still, I wanted to make sure that I understood the pros and cons of spaying and neutering.

I was fascinated to learn that some dog owners are against the procedure. What could possibly be the downside? As I researched, I found that there are a whole lot of myths and not many facts that support the arguments against the procedure.

One common argument made against spaying and neutering is the expense. I spoke to our vet and learned that the cost of spaying is around $500, which would be covered by our insurance. That cost could certainly be prohibitive if you don’t have insurance. Still, if you consider the cost of having a litter and then providing care to make sure the mother and the litter are healthy throughout the two-month pregnancy and two months when the pups are nursing before they are weaned, the health care alone can be expensive — even more so if there are any complications. On the other hand, spaying or neutering is a one-time, fixed cost.

The second argument I uncovered (and the one that I felt held the least water) is what I call the “machismo” argument. It goes like this: Your male dog will be somehow less-than-male and stripped of its masculinity by being neutered. Well then, I had to ask myself, why not consider a vasectomy? Does a dog really feel less masculine without testicles? Dogs have no ego, which makes that impossible. The machismo argument felt to me like human beings transferring their own feelings to an animal.

A third argument that was often made against spaying or neutering is that dogs become overweight after the procedure. I did further research but found little hard evidence to prove this. Many vets say that the most common cause of overweight and obesity in dogs is lack of exercise and overfeeding.

Interestingly, there is currently a discussion in the veterinary community about using alternatives to neutering, specifically hysterectomy (removal of the uterus, but leaving the ovaries intact) and vasectomy (the severing of the tubes that conduct sperm from the testes). The timing of neutering and spaying is also being discussed, in order to minimize some of the potential adverse effects of neutering. Vets say there might be an argument for waiting until one to three years of age when animals are considered full-grown and mature.

As with many decisions in life, I thought back to something my parents said when I was a child: The best offense is a good defense. To me, spaying or neutering is the best defense against an unwanted litter, even if you are the most responsible pet owner on the planet. Just because you’re a responsible owner of an unneutered or un-spayed pet doesn’t mean that all pet owners who make the same decision are also responsible. Your unsprayed female dog could become pregnant by the dog of the less responsible owner. Or, your male dog could impregnate the dog of the less responsible owner. Either way, you as the responsible dog owner may well pay the price for the other owner’s irresponsibility — an unwanted litter.

Pup Diaries, Entry #5: Our First Pup Emergency (20-24 weeks)

Dear Diary,
In my last entry, I chronicled Sommer’s “firsts.” Much like a toddler taking her first steps, once those “firsts” were achieved, there was no looking back! Why crawl when you can walk, and once you’ve figured out what a squirrel is, why not chase it? But recently, we experienced a first that I fervently hoped would also be a “last.”

One recent evening, I was standing over the stove, making my family a stir fry for dinner. I had a self-satisfied sense of accomplishment, which should have been a red flag because we moms know that as soon as you feel self-satisfied, the universe will find a way to bring you back to Earth! I had tidied up the house, and finished unpacking the remnants of our spring break trip. But underneath the self-satisfaction was a strange feeling of unease, and I chalked it up to a low-pressure system, as Minnesota was awaiting the unwelcome arrival a late-season snowstorm. Did I mention it was also the day before my spring birthday? Spring birthdays in the Midwest are often accompanied by unpredictable weather, but anticipating two feet of snow after an already long winter would make anyone uneasy, if not downright grumpy.

“Jingle, jingle!” Sommer swatted at the bells that hung on the front door knob, which is her way of asking to go outside. My son opened the door and walked outside with her, only to return with a concerned look. He said that Sommer had walked outside and vomited on our front walk. I went outside and took a look (I have no idea why, because how would I assess dog vomit?). Recalling that our vet had once said to me, “puppies throw up all the time, and for all sorts of random reasons,” I repeated this to my son and decided to take a wait-and-see approach.

We had dinner and to my relief, Sommer was acting like her normal energetic puppy self. But in walking past Sommer’s dog bed, something unusual caught my eye. I squatted down to examine it. It was a chewed-up bottle, with the lid removed. A sickening feeling washed over me, as I recognized it as a travel-sized bottle of Advil that I’d set on the stairs with a pile of other items that I had planned to carry up to our bedroom. The realization dawned: Sommer had vomited, and the empty container of Advil must have been the cause.

Panicked, we called our vet, but they were closed for the night, and we were referred to an emergency animal hospital. The hospital confirmed that ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Advil, is toxic for dogs, and given that our 17-pound dog had eaten somewhere between six and ten Advil if the hospital didn’t take quick action, the huge dose of ibuprofen would result in her kidneys shutting down, and death. I was terrified and overwrought and furious with myself. How could I have done something so stupid? My husband reassured me, then grabbed Sommer and rushed to the hospital.

Over the next two days, Sommer underwent treatment to flush the ibuprofen from her system. Fortunately, she responded well, her bloodwork remained normal during her stay, and the outlook for her recovery was always positive. Still, it was stressful as we worried about her day and night, and we missed her terribly. On the day she was able to be released, the promised snowstorm barreled into town, bringing with it 18 inches of snow. We wanted Sommer home, and we wanted to avoid another several hundred dollars in hospital charges. Thankfully, a friend with a pickup truck that could make it through snowdrifts and unplowed parking lots volunteered to help.

The hospital bill totaled $1,500, but Sommer was back home again and thank goodness, no worse for wear. As I sat on the sofa with my pup safely in my lap, I reflected on how our family had become a walking advertisement for pet insurance. The policy we bought had already paid for itself several times over, and Sommer wasn’t even a year old. Despite my fears that we were disastrously inept pet parents, my vet assured me that visits like this were far from uncommon for puppy owners. I can’t imagine pup parenthood without the safety net that pet insurance provides. It provided peace of mind in at least the financial aspect of a very stressful episode in Sommer’s puppyhood.

Next entry from Puppy Diaries: To Spay Or Not To Spay

Pup Tips: Live Easier and Smarter

What I Learned (The Hard Way)
Do not, under any circumstances, leave medications anywhere except a closed cabinet. Even a countertop that you think your pup could never, ever reach is not safe. Just this morning, and despite the fact that Sommer is not allowed in our bedroom, I moved a pill bottle that was on a bedside table and put it into a medicine cabinet. You never know when your pup might sneak into a room where they are not allowed and find the exact thing you want them never to touch! Pups are unpredictable, and a bottle anywhere on a countertop could be easy pickings for a pup, and land your pup in an emergency hospital.

The Puppy Diaries, Entry #4: Memorable Firsts With Our New Pup

Dear Diary,
Being a first-time pup mom, there are few things that happen that AREN’T somehow surprising. I can’t count the number of times my family has heard me ask, “She’s doing WHAT now?” To a pup, everything is NEW! And EXCITING! When she first arrived home, Sommer would perk up if a leaf blew across the yard. “What’s that? I must chase it!” she’d think, and off she’d go, in hot pursuit. The day she came across a pine cone on the trail where we walk was an equally exciting discovery, and an object to be sniffed at length. A pup’s enthusiasm as she discovers the world around her is contagious, and I found myself looking forward to introducing her to new situations and objects, just to see her delighted reaction.

As the first year continues, the “firsts” are fewer and farther between, in part because we are beginning to discern behavior patterns and develop routines. As a result, we are experiencing fewer surprises. Still, Sommer continues to push boundaries as she gets older and wiser. Having had ample time to observe the ways of her “pack,” she continues to try to move up in the pack ranking, and test our resolve. Some of that behavior has created new “firsts,” such as the first time she tried to grab food off the kitchen counter when I had my back turned. There are also still “firsts” related to the calendar, and to milestones: first Christmas; first snow; first shot at the veterinarian. But mostly, as we continue through the first year, some of my favorite firsts have to do with seeing her overcome her fears and improve her behavior through training. The first time she walked successfully on a leash past another dog without being scared felt like a major milestone, as was the first time she sat on her dog bed when the doorbell rang and waited for our guest to come to the dog bed to greet her. Those firsts were hard-won, so it’s nice that there are also simpler “firsts” that didn’t take long to achieve, such as the first time she jingled the string of bells I hung on our front door, to tell us she needs to go outside. It’s such a joy watching her learn, grow and discover the world around her.

My Top Five: Puppy Firsts

The list of first-year “firsts” is long, so I’ve culled it down to my top five – some good, some bad, but all memorable. They will all go down in our family lore!

  • First time going up and (more importantly) down the stairs: I’d seen videos of pups being taught to cautiously make their way down a flight of stairs, step by step. Given that Sommer tends to be on the timid side, I figured teaching her would take a similar amount of cheerleading and painstaking effort. Imagine my surprise when she happily waddled her way down the steps, with no instruction necessary. Pups are full of surprises!
  • First episode of diarrhea: This was a doozy. I had a friend visiting from out of town, and we were going out. I left Sommer with our teenage son, who was playing a video game. Aforementioned son continued to play video games, and did not watch the puppy as instructed, leaving the puppy to her own devices. Puppy panicked. My husband arrived home to find a massive mess on the stairs. Poor puppy. Poor husband. Son? In doghouse.
  • First bath: Sommer is not a fan of bath time. Still, we kept at it, bathing her consistently, to acclimate her to the experience. As it turns out, if we keep a steady stream of treats coming, with the promise of a bully stick when it’s done, she’ll tolerate it, and us. The highlight, by far, comes when you take your pup out of the tub and wrap her up like a burrito in a big fluffy towel. Seeing that adorable face peering out at you from under the towel is the cutest!
  • First grooming: Fortunately, we’d worked hard at bathing and regular brushing as well. That went a long way in making Sommer’s first grooming experience a positive one. The fact that we chose a groomer with 30 years of experience might have helped as well, as her calm, confident demeanor is something Sommer responded to immediately.
  • First time seeing a squirrel: We don’t have a lot of squirrels in our yard, because we have coyotes in the vicinity. Personally, I’d take the squirrels any day! In any case, we were out walking near a lake one day when Sommer spotted her first nearby squirrel. She froze, like a statue, nose pointed, tail up, feet at the ready to run. Thank goodness she was on a leash, because she was lined up like an Olympic sprinter in the blocks. Being a fan of the movie UP!, I called out “squirrel!” for my own amusement. The squirrel darted, Sommer tried to set off in hot pursuit, and somehow my shoulder did not get dislocated (it helps that she’s only 18 pounds). Lesson: keep dogs this age either leashed or in a confined area at all times!

Next entry from Puppy Diaries: Our First Pup Emergency

Pup Tips: Live Easier and Smarter

What I Learned (The Hard Way)
You are the center of your pup’s world. Never leave unless you are 100 percent certain that someone is giving your pup their full attention. If you can’t be certain, it’s better to crate her or put in a secure location – whatever your routine has been. If you fail to heed this advice, it’s entirely possible that your pup will panic, and soil your carpeting, chew up something you value, or otherwise get into trouble.

Puppy Diaries #3. Caring For and Training Our New Pup

Dear Diary,

Sommer has been home for a few weeks and we’re getting into a groove – she’s teaching me as much as I’m teaching her! I’m noticing a distinct rhythm to our days. The schedule revolves around eating, playing, exercising, chewing (with any luck, on a bully stick and not the furniture or carpet), peeing, pooping, and napping – lots of pup naps! What a relief it was, after a couple of weeks at home, she finally started sleeping a seven-hour stretch at night. Getting sleep helped my mood considerably! Potty accidents are still a problem, and I try not to lose patience with her as well as myself. I know that when she has an accident, it’s my fault for not paying attention to how long it’s been since she last went out. But in my defense, it can be hard to keep track of the dog, the kids, my work, dinner, laundry and every other thing that’s going on in the three-ring circus we call life. Even with the challenges and occasional frustrations, there are moments each day that make the hard work and craziness worthwhile, such as the eager greeting we get not only when we come home from being out, but when we leave a room and re-enter it two minutes later. There’s nothing like a puppy’s “welcome home”!

Acclimating to Life With a Pup

Our first weeks home with Sommer were a rollercoaster ride – highs, lows and everything in between. Every morning we’d wake up to her little barks. Something is barking! What is it? Oh, wait! WE HAVE A PUPPY. Yay! That was certainly a daily high point that made every morning feel like Christmas morning. Then we’d scramble downstairs to release her from her crate, and she’d be so excited, she’d pee on the floor. Ugh. A low point!

We soon learned though, that in a world of high-tech, there’s was a lot to be said for the simple pleasures of owning a pup. Cuddling, tossing a ball around the house, creating homemade obstacle courses (she was surprisingly nimble at Army-crawling under furniture) became favorite family pastimes, and lured our boys from their iPads and phones. For our boys, who are ages 12 and 15, Sommer provides a means to release pent-up energy after school, and an emotional outlet for their love and affection, two things that can be hard for kids to demonstrate as they get older.

The main challenge as Sommer acclimated to her new environment, with no littermates and a new pack leader in me, was sleep. Her first two nights at home were the worst and were accompanied by loud crying. I gritted my teeth and did not let her out of her crate, because I felt it would teach her that loud crying would result in her getting what she wanted. That was one behavior I did not want to encourage! It was tough, and I gritted my teeth and had to restrain myself from running to her crate to pick her up, but we got through it.

In addition to trying to discourage crying, we also tried hard not to reinforce negative behavior by responding to her when she jumped up for attention or nipped. I made sure that no one in the family petted her, picked her up or paid any attention to her when she jumped or nipped. A firm “no” and a turned back was enough to stop her in her tracks. Fortunately, Sommer instinctually needed to be near me as her pack leader, and any time I rebuffed her for negative behavior, she quickly corrected in order not to be exiled. It was amazing how quickly she developed habits, and I tried to make them good ones!

As we acclimated to each other, I also made an effort to pick up on Sommer’s signals and body language. What was she trying to tell me? Her pounce-y and bouncy self was right at home with our family, but if another dog came near, she would jump on me to be picked up, even when we were in our own yard. Every person on the planet has something that causes them stress, and apparently, other dogs are Sommer’s stressor. Ha! So, I signed up for a Puppy Obedience class in order to socialize her and help her be more accustomed to being around her “peers.”

Caring For Our Pup

Within a couple weeks of bringing her home, we were at the vet’s office for vaccinations and a check-up. Weeks later, on the second visit, she had a couple more vaccinations, and after I brought her home, she became listless didn’t want to get off the couch or eat a treat. Alarmed, I called the vet, who directed me to bring her back for observation and treatment for a reaction to the vaccination. Sommer was admitted to the animal hospital for a few hours for treatment and observation. As I handed over my credit card and watched the vet tech carry her away from me, my stomach was in knots. Fortunately, I’d signed up for pet insurance, so that was one less worry. Still, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief when I got the call that she had recovered well and was ready to be picked up.

Puppy Diaries #2: Picking Our Pup and Bringing Her Home (8-12 Weeks)

Dear Diary,

After an exhilarating and exhausting seven-hour drive, including stops at every. single. wayside. between Kenosha, Wis. and Minneapolis, we made it! We are home, and we have a pup. Her name is Sommer (Norwegian for “summer” and pronounced the same). She’s eight weeks old, weighs five pounds, and wakes up every few hours to go outside. Somehow our boys manage to sleep through the whining and crying (Sommer’s, not mine), so the nighttime duties are left to my husband and I. Potty accidents, worries about whether she’s eating and drinking enough, appointments for vaccinations — the experience is uncannily similar to bringing home a baby. In a nutshell? Bringing home Sommer has been intense, hilarious, fun, heartwarming and a little crazy at times.

Puppy Pick-Up Day Arrives

You would’ve thought I was waiting to hear whether I’d been accepted into the Ivy League by the way I was pacing a path into the carpeting that August afternoon. In reality, I was waiting for a text from our breeder to find out which puppy of the five in the litter would be ours. I shouldn’t have been tense, but we were last on the list, so we had no control over which pup we’d get. And, I’d made a big, fat rookie pup mom error: Via the photos and emails from the breeder during the previous eight weeks, I’d gotten attached to one particular pup.

Our breeder had warned against such foolishness. My higher self, the one that meditates, eats vegan and practices yoga daily, understood that all the pups were equally fabulous and any one of them would make a great dog. Our boys certainly felt that way, as they changed favorites every week. But my less-evolved self had fallen head over heels with one pup: The little girl wearing the pink collar.

Admittedly, the fact that we have two (human) boys had me naturally leaning toward a girl, even if it was a canine girl. When Nicole shared that there were four girls and one boy in the litter and that the first family to pick wanted a boy, I was happy as could be. Still, of the four girls, the girl in the pink collar reached out and grabbed my heart. It wasn’t that she was the cutest or most photogenic, although of course, she was both cute and photogenic. In the photos, she had a look on her face that said she wasn’t 100% convinced about this photo-taking operation, which made me chuckle. She looked like one cool customer. Everything inside me screamed, “that’s our dog.” I shared photos of the litter with my mom, and she picked the girl with the pink collar. I showed the photos to a friend and my sister-in-law, and they each picked the girl with the pink collar. Still, I didn’t share my wish with Nicole, as I didn’t want to seem desperate or weird, two things that I was starting to wonder about myself.

On the day that families went to the breeder to pick their pup, we were an hour away in Chicago, visiting friends. Because we were last on the list, we couldn’t pick our dog until the end of the day, which wouldn’t allow us enough time to make the seven-hour drive home to Minneapolis. We’d agreed that whatever pup we got, our breeder would send her to a nearby trainer for a night, and we would pick her up the next morning. All afternoon, I paced as I tried with varying levels of success to keep my mind occupied. Finally, at 5 p.m., a text came in from our breeder, saying: “Congrats! The pink collar girl is yours!”

I won’t pretend I didn’t dance around the room and cry a bit while screaming, “The pink collar girl! She’s ours!”

Meet Sommer! The Pup behind Puppy Diaries.

I breathlessly texted back, telling her Sommer’s name and sharing that she was the one we secretly wanted all along. Our breeder responded that two different families had decided to take Sommer, but wound up choosing a different pup. These happy coincidences seem to happen with each litter, she said, and it never ceases to amaze her how things usually work out for the best.

Faith in the universe affirmed, we set off the next morning for the trainer’s house. There we found a gaggle of pups romping in an outside pen. Some were digging at the edge of the fence, but Sommer was wisely keeping an observant eye from a distance. The trainer handed her over, and I scooped her up in my arms and snuggled her.

Puppy Diaries #1: Deciding To Get A New Puppy (0-8 Weeks)

Welcome to the Puppy Diaries! Penned by a respected published author and first-time pup mom Laura Tiebert, the Puppy Diaries series chronicles the ups and downs of pup parenthood: from deciding to get a family dog to celebrating the pup’s milestones, health scares and even a ruined cherished rug. Revealing new pup-parent mistakes and unexpected successes, leading to advice, tips and plenty of humor, the Puppy Diaries will take the reader through the first year of life for Sommer, her pup. Sit, Stay and Enjoy!

Dear Diary,
Today we made the commitment we’ve been tiptoeing around for years. I called the dog breeder and asked her to put our name on the list for an upcoming litter. True confession: My emotions are careening back and forth like a ping-pong ball. I’m scared. And excited. And scared again. What have I done? I’m giddy with anticipation and more than a little anxious. Because I know our lives are about to change – forever.

Going into Puppy Parenthood with Eyes Wide Open

The unvarnished truth about the day I called the breeder? I was a reluctant puppy owner-to-be. Over the years, I’d witnessed friends and family going through all sorts of challenging experiences because of their dogs, some of them expensive (emergency vet calls at 2 a.m., anyone?) and others gut-wrenching (as was the case when my brother’s Sheepdog/Poodle mix was nearly mauled to death by a bulldog in daycare). The puppy love blinders were off, and I was well aware of the reality of dog parenthood.

In fact, two years before I made that call, we’d put down a deposit and had our names on the list to get a puppy. We started picking out names: Scarlet if our pup’s fur was red; Coco if her fur was brown. Months later, with the pups newly born, I got a classic case of cold feet. Although I felt like the world’s biggest curmudgeon, I followed my gut. I called the breeder and backed out, saying the time wasn’t right.

Breaking from the Script 

The kids were disappointed, to say the least. It didn’t help that we’d even received photos of the pups in the litter – teeny tiny fur balls of pure adorableness. Cuteness aside, I simply had too many misgivings. My family had a dog when I was growing up, but as an adult, I was looking at puppy ownership through new eyes. I already felt burdened with enough responsibility for one lifetime. I had a full-time job, my husband was commuting three hours a day for his job, and we had two young boys. Add to that the fact that I can hardly keep a plant alive, much less a living creature (ask Richard, our short-lived hamster who died an untimely death due to a cracked window. Who knew gerbils were so sensitive to a draft?).

And then, life happened, and my husband received a job offer in another state – a job offer that was so good, we couldn’t refuse. My gut feeling was vindicated. That night, with our family sitting around the kitchen table, my husband broke the news to our boys: We’re moving. Our boys broke down in tears. Through his tears, our older son sobbed, “After we move, can we at least get a puppy?”

“Yes!” my husband responded, “Yes, we can.” I looked at him in alarm. “What did you just say,” I screamed inwardly. “You’re going off script! A puppy isn’t part of the deal!” But it was too late. A deal had been struck.

Fast forward a year and a half in our new home later. The family was settled in, and it was time. A deal was a deal — even if I didn’t make the deal.

As it turns out, I was right to seriously consider the timing of taking on a puppy. As my mom sagely put it: “Your life will never be the same.” As much as I hate to admit it, Mom was right.  Our family’s life has forever changed – but in the very best way.

Next Entry: Bringing Our Puppy Home

“The Puppy Diaries” is an ongoing series that explores the journey of pet parenthood, from making the decision to get a puppy, to bringing a puppy home, to the joys and struggles of training, and beyond. Laura Tiebert is an experienced nonfiction writer and first-time puppy parent who lives in Minnesota with her husband, two sons and a new puppy. 

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What We Learned: How to Make a Good Decision About a New Puppy

Do your homework when determining whether to get a puppy (yes, there’s homework involved, if you do it right). My research boiled the decision down to two key factors that determined our ability to be good puppy owners: the availability of time, and money. My advice? If you are short on either, proceed slowly and with caution.

Understanding the Costs of Getting a Puppy

According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent an estimated $62.75 billion on their pets in 2016 (and that number is estimated to grow to $69.36 billion in 2017!). Estimates for the cost of a puppy in the first year range from $770-$1,285. There is great variation in cost, depending on whether you’re getting a puppy from a breeder or a shelter.