Puppy Diary #12: The Highs, Lows and In-Betweens of Sommer’s First Year

Dear Diary,

Soon we will celebrate Sommer’s first birthday. What a ride this year has been! From the high of picking her up at the trainer’s house and watching her darling littermates tumbling around the pen, to the low of rushing her to the emergency hospital after eating Advil, I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for the world (well, maybe I would trade the Advil incident). But, just because Sommer is a year old doesn’t mean we automatically wake up that morning to a full-grown, fully trained dog. No, I expect Sommer to act like a puppy for a long while to come. Even physically, she might continue to change, as she is still lean, and her vet says she might fill out a bit. At nearly a year old, her energy level is high, although less frenetic as when she was tiny. In some ways, now that she is full grown, she needs more outdoor exercise than when she was smaller and could run around the house and tire herself out in the process.

Even as we wrap up the final official month of puppyhood, Sommer requires huge amounts of my attention: She is not an independent type. I’ve been told that this “people person” tendency is a doodle characteristic. I’m not sure if that’s true of every doodle, but I can attest that Sommer wants to be next to me every minute of the day, under any circumstances. If I get up off the couch and move to a chair five feet away, she gets up off the couch and moves to the chair. She’s no dummy. She’s going to stay close to the pack leader!

That leads me to nighttime, which has been one of our biggest challenges this year. She’s doing better at sleeping on her bed on the floor of our bedroom, but she still jumps up on our bed at 5:45 a.m. And that’s not the only habit we have yet to break. She still gets overly excited when visitors come to our house. She still is timid going for walks. She still goes berserk after a bath, zooming around the house and issuing a series of sharp barks that has me covering my ears while she tears around. There are days when she rings the bell to go outside dozens of times a day. I open the door for her, and she stands at the threshold and sniffs the air for the longest time, which drives me batty! Then she looks at me with those big, expressive brown eyes and it feels like a hug. The first year was indeed a journey from puppy to love.

Sommer was born in a litter of four girls and one boy, and from the first time the breeder emailed photos, I knew she was the one for us. Miraculously, even though we were the last family to pick (meaning we didn’t pick, we took the pup who was left after everyone else picked), we got her. That bond has only grown stronger and more sure since the first time I saw her tiny face in the breeder’s photo. We brought her home at ten weeks old. From that day, our lives were never the same. Those initial weeks were not unlike the two times in our lives when we brought home a new baby. Our sleep was definitely challenged. As it turns out, Sommer would tolerate being in her crate at night, until she wouldn’t. When she would wake in the early morning hours, she would decide she needed to be with her pack members and she would bark and whine plaintively. Unlike a baby, there was no “crying it out” method that ever worked for us. Sommer never gave up barking and fell into an exhausted sleep. Instead, she had the willpower and stamina to bark for seemingly hours on end – not that we had the patience to let her bark for that long. Her barking resulted in the entire household being awakened, an equally unappealing prospect when school and work awaited us in the morning. Sommer’s clear preference was to be on the bed with my husband and I. We didn’t prefer that, though, so when she was about 10 months old, we moved her out of her crate and onto a dog bed on the floor of our bedroom, which we thought was a fair compromise. The arrangement works, until she wakes us up early in the morning by jumping on the bed. Sleep, for sure, continues to be our biggest challenge as we complete the first year.

Puppy Diary #11: Mastering the Holidays with a Puppy

Dear Diary,

Each year, from October 31 through January 1, our lives are punctuated with special events, festivities, and merrymaking. While we as humans can understand concepts such as, “It’s Halloween, so the doorbell is going to ring 100 times tonight, yet there is no cause for alarm,” our pup Sommer does not have the same capacity. If only I could explain the reason and assuage her fears! But alas, the same goes for lovingly wrapped gifts under a tree. Anything on the floor is fair game and a potential plaything, right? And while we’re at it, I can imagine her asking herself, “What’s up with having a spruce tree inside the house? What is this madness?” It’s fascinating to try to see the holidays from a pup’s point of view.

As we rounded the corner and headed into the last few months of the year, our family was nearly giddy with anticipation. Sharing the holidays with a pup would mean memorable moment after memorable moment. Imagine our pup in a Halloween costume! Playing with ribbons from discarded Christmas wrapping! Tasting a bit of the Thanksgiving turkey! At the same time, I realized that the holidays would be full of potential pitfalls. (Remember the dreaded emergency room visit that happened when Sommer mistook a bottle of Advil for a delicious treat? No one needs a repeat of that episode!). I didn’t need Sommer breaking into a bag of chocolate Halloween candy – that much is certain – and I was determined to not only enjoy the holidays with our pup but to keep her safe, too.

Our first stop on the holiday gauntlet was Halloween, and to be honest, it was the one that filled me with dread. As I’ve mentioned, answering the door has become a two-person job in our house, as one person manages the dog and the other greets our guest. The prospect of the doorbell ringing incessantly was not an appealing one, to put it mildly. And I wasn’t the only one concerned: Many dogs don’t do well at Halloween. According to Bark Busters, the world’s largest dog training company, Halloween is the time that they hear more about dogs dying or straying. That makes sense because if Halloween is intended to scare or startle us, it will certainly do the same to a pup.

In our house, Halloween also meant guests, as our kids often would invite friends over for dinner, followed by trick-or-treating and then a scary movie, which would engender delighted screams and howls. All of that excited energy could be overstimulating for Sommer, and that wasn’t even considering the doorbell ringing and costumed kids yelling “trick or treat!” Chocolate too is toxic to dogs and must be avoided at all costs. When the kids got home from trick-or-treating, I made it clear that they were welcome to empty their bags and trade candy, but that it had to be done on the dining room table rather than the family room floor.

My goal was to make sure the kids had their fun while keeping Sommer as calm and protected as possible. Fortunately, Sommer has been around kids her whole life, so despite the fact that kids can be unpredictable, loud and aggressive in their behavior, groups of kids don’t faze her. Still, the last thing I wanted was for Sommer to get spooked and dart out the front door!

Sommer was able to greet the kids’ friends and enjoy being around the dinner activity. Once the kids headed out trick-or-treating, I took Sommer upstairs where we relaxed in the master bedroom while my husband handled door-answering duties. She whined and paced a bit at first, but then settled down with a chewy stick. Once the heaviest period of trick-or-treating passed, Sommer and I came downstairs and she was able to greet the occasional group of kids at the door without incident.

The remaining holidays of the year were less treacherous than Halloween, thank goodness! Whether Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or Boxing Day, the holidays mostly involved managing a pup’s manners around guests and steering clear of potentially toxic items. Now, I have friends who close the dog off in another room when hosting guests. Or, they might even send the dog to someone else’s home for a playdate or overnight. And believe me, I understand! Either option makes sense if your dog is likely to be overwhelmed by visitors or could get underfoot in the kitchen. (One thing you do NOT need is to trip over your dog while carrying a platter of Thanksgiving turkey to a table of guests).

Puppy Diaries #10 Mastering the Perfect Puppy Walk

Dear Diary,

Sommer is ten months old and is in the full-blown teenage years, I mean, months. The joke’s on me, because now I have an actual human teenager in the house, plus a canine one to boot. Sommer is becoming a free and independent thinker, just like her 15-year-old human brother. She is by turns enthusiastic and stubborn. One minute she is tearing around the house with a case of the “zoomies,” as we’ve come to call it, and the next she is fearful and skittish. She’s getting more clever in her attempts to buck the system, whether that means trying to sneak up onto our bed at night (she is installed on her dog bed in our bedroom, but that doesn’t seem quite close enough to us for her liking) or staring at me blankly as I call “Come!” and then turning her back on me and calmly trotting off in the opposite direction. On the more positive side, she is bright and happy and loves to learn new games. We’re currently working on “fetch,” because although she does have some Labrador retriever and some golden retriever in her, the concept of retrieving the ball and then bringing it back to me so I can throw it again seems foreign to her. The chasing the ball part? Well, she’s a natural at that. And she’s fast. Which brings me to the topic of needing to get her plentiful exercise by walking.

At ten months, Sommer is no longer a little puppy. She’s nearly full grown, and has started to fill out regarding her muscle tone. Even now, she weighs only 17 pounds. We thought she might be as big as 25 pounds, but it turns out that she takes after her 15-pound mama more than her 35-pound daddy. That’s fine by me! But it does pose some interesting challenges concerning aggressiveness, as she is well aware that she’s smaller than most dogs she encounters. And the time when we notice this most is when we go out for a walk, which seems to alternate between happy sniffing and terrified high-pitched barking when another dog charges us from its yard, barking like it wants to kill us both (even though I can see its tail wagging!).

In other words, walking with Sommer is great fifty percent of the time. The other fifty percent could use improvement.

Problem number one is that as a puppy, Sommer has no concept of regulating her walking pace to mine. Then there is pulling and jerking as she trots off to the side to sniff something particularly tantalizing in the grass, and next thing you know, she’s walked around my legs, and now I find myself standing there immobilized, like a potted plant abandoned in the street. As a small dog, fortunately, she isn’t strong enough to pull my shoulder out of its socket, and for that I am grateful. Still, the worst leash-walking habit that she has is randomly and without warning crossing in front of me, causing me to attempt to come to a halt, usually on my tiptoes with my arms stretched outward as if to break an impending fall. And as bad as that habit is, the worst walking incident we’ve had so far had nothing to do with Sommer and everything to do with our Minnesota winters. Last winter, I hit a patch of black ice that was camouflaged under a fresh layer of fluffy snow and as if in a cartoon, my legs went flying out from under me and I landed flat on my back. Now, the blessing of this was twofold: One, no one was around to see my humiliating slip; and two, I was bundled up in a massive puffer coat, including a hat and giant puffy hood, which cushioned the fall. But the point of the story is that Sommer thought this was hilarious. Far from coming to my rescue in canine concern, Sommer jumped all over my prone body, thinking this was a game. So in any case, if I can fall while walking when Sommer was behaving on the leash, imagine what could happen if she cut in front of me on one of those snowy days.

I decided to consult Google to get some expert advice on my dog-walking dilemmas. What I gleaned from leading trainers was that leash training was a pain, but well worth it in the long run, and is part of training that does have a considerable safety component – both for you and your puppy. I learned that I should be the first one out the door, reinforcing that I am the leader and that I should also be the one back in. Another expert advised that you should train your puppy to sit patiently while you take off your shoes and hang up the leash. That sounded a whole lot like something Mr. Rogers would do, and I immediately implemented it. A nice meal or treat at the end of the walk was another recommendation to reinforce to Sommer the message that she has worked for her food. The experts recommended morning as the ideal walking time, for a period of 30 minutes to one hour. This is where having a small dog is nice: Thirty minutes is plenty long for her.

Puppy Diaries #9 Mastering the Perfect Puppy-Human Social Interaction

Dear Diary,

It’s month nine, and Sommer is growing up. She’s still got boundless energy, but she’s less hyperactive than she was a few months ago. She’s starting to look less like a little pup and more like a gangly teenager, with awkwardly large feet that are too big for her body. She is an extremely fast runner and loves to sprint around the yard, easily chasing down our boys and then barking with joy when she catches them. Potty training issues are largely in the rear view mirror, although the occasional bout of diarrhea is always in the realm of possibility, and I am still on very friendly terms with our local carpet cleaner. Sommer’s face is so expressive at this age! Her eyes are bright and she looks at me for direction, eager to please. In our household, she has the routine down and understands the rules – no jumping on the good chair, ring the bell on the door to go outside, no counter surfing and the like. I guess you could say that she trusts us now, and I trust her (most of the time, although after the Advil-chewing episode, I am very thorough about keeping her away from things that might cause her to fall into trouble). But when the doorbell rings? That’s when all training bets are off.

We have an active household, with two sons and friends and family and sports carpools and music teachers and handymen and lawn mowing crews coming to the house on a regular basis. All that makes for a happy home and Sommer loves greeting guests. But do guests love it when Sommer greets them? In the beginning, the answer was decidedly “no.” And I can’t say I blame them. I don’t like a dog that jumps on me when I walk into someone’s home, and as a small dog, Sommer seems particularly prone to jumping. It’s in her nature to want to get up to human level. She’s also prone to excited barking, another habit that made door greetings a real challenge. It was one of the things that bothered me most about having a dog, so we decided to hire one of the trainers who taught Sommer’s group puppy training classes to come to our house to diagnose the issue and prescribe a solution.

The trainer was great at reinforcing that door greetings are indeed one of the biggest challenges around. She advised using a method where we would put a dog bed near the door, but not next to the door, and saying “go to bed” when the doorbell rang. I was to stand next to the bed and give Sommer treats as long as she stayed on the bed. The idea was that the guest would come in and then pass by the bed and greet Sommer, or not greet Sommer – whatever the guest wanted. Whether it was my lack of proper execution or simply Sommer’s puppy effervescence, although we worked on it for months, both in real scenarios and in trials where the boys would go outside and ring the bell, Sommer never quite mastered it. She would “go to bed,” but as soon as I gave her one little treat, she would grab it and run from the bed to jump on the person at the door. Answering the door became a two-person job, as I was stuck calling “go to bed” and standing by the dog bed, while one of the boys had to answer the doorbell – and they weren’t always at home to play that role. I thought Sommer might catch on and stay in the bed while I walked over to the door, but alas, the promise of a new human to greet was far too overwhelming and in fact seemed more alluring than any treat I could offer.

Back to the “beep” collar we went (note: we would only use a shock-free collar). When visiting my parents at their home one week, Sommer would get beside herself with excitement when she would see my parents each morning, as if she’d never seen them before. This turned into the perfect opportunity to put on her “beep” collar and teach her the no-jumping greetings rule. We were diligent in showing her that when she jumped up on them in excited greeting, it would result in a “beep.” When she stayed down, with all four paws on the ground, my parents made sure to give her lots of pets and “good girl” praise. The idea seemed to sink in. Back at home, the only trick to continue this method successfully was to make sure she had her collar on when guests were coming to the house, or in the case of an unexpected visitor, to have the collar at the ready near the door so I could quickly put it on her.

Puppy Diaries #8: Mastering the Perfect Puppy Social Interaction

Dear Diary,

Now that we’ve made it through the first seven months and are into Sommer’s eighth month, I find that most of my time and training is focused around refining her behavior. And by “refining,” I mean “trying to make her behavior palatable to other humans … and dogs.” I don’t add “dogs” lightly. One of the main challenges we face is that while she loves people, she’s not so sure about her fellow canines. I get it. She’s smaller than most dogs, and as we all know, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Still, part of growing up is facing your fears and gaining confidence in the process, right? This month, I decided to work on puppy social interactions, so that Sommer and I could feel free to go out and explore the world. As an eight-month-old pup, Sommer needs exercise, so I was excited to put the off-leash dog park, puppy play dates and nice long walks around our neighborhood on my agenda. Boy, was I ever surprised when the events I looked forward to ever since she was a tiny pup turned out to be some of the most challenging I’d ever needed to manage!

When friends told me about our local off-leash dog park, I thought we’d found nirvana. I’ve never visited any other dog parks, so I’m not in a place to compare, but as I researched it online, I found it was fully fenced and 18 acres in size, with hiking trails circling a grove of tall oak trees. The day we first visited, I pulled up in the parking lot and counted four extended-cab pickup trucks parked nearby, which gave me the feeling that this was the place for athletic and sporty pups who regularly flush out pheasants. But I was excited to check it out, and I was prepared with my leash and poop bags at the ready. More than that, I had prepped myself to toe the line between being a neurotic helicopter dog parent and keeping a close eye on Sommer.

Unfortunately, what I had prepared for wasn’t what I encountered. At about 15 pounds, Sommer is a small dog, and to larger, sporting dogs, she must have looked like something fun to chase. In her first encounter, a large Goldendoodle sniffed her, which made her frightened and start running in terrified circles, barking in higher and higher pitches. The Goldendoodle took off in hot pursuit. The faster Sommer ran and the more she barked, the more the dog chased her. The dog was definitely not getting her “stand back, I don’t like this” message. No, what kicked in was the dog’s prey drive. I finally was able to scoop her up and take her back to the car.

The next time we visited, I noticed that she was shaking visibly, but that was par for the course: She shook with nerves when we went to the vet, doggy daycare of the groomer, and even the pet store. On our second visit, we had some fun, but she always seemed on edge. I liked it though, because she got lots of fresh air and exercise, and so did I. On our third visit, she had another run-in with a larger dog, and I started to question the wisdom of our exercise routine. I consulted a trainer, who shocked me by saying that under no circumstances should we return to the dog park. She warned that small dogs can become aggressive by being put into traumatizing situations when they are pups. “Have you ever passed by a Chihuahua sitting on its owner’s lap, and it automatically bares its teeth and growls at you, even though you’ve done nothing, not even approached it?” she asked me. I nodded. “That’s what can happen if you keep going to the dog park.” Needless to say, we never returned.

Puppy playdates were another activity that seemed like they should have been fun but turned into a challenging puppy parenthood adventure. We have a very kind and patient neighbor who has two mini golden doodles who are about a year and a half older than Sommer. Although they are smaller than Sommer, Sommer’s typical behavior upon meeting them was excited nonstop barking and chasing. It was as if she was doing unto them what had been done to her at the dog park. It was tiresome, as I wanted to catch up with my neighbor while the dogs played, but we could hardly hear each other over the din of Sommer’s incessant barking.

Puppy Diaries #7: First Year Costs – Myths vs. Reality (6-7 Months)

Dear Diary,

This month, after I had gone through the exercise of tallying Sommer’s medical expenses, I was inspired to further torture myself (haha) by adding up the full costs of Sommer’s first year, including the medical expenses. I began by thinking through where and how I spent money this year. Fortunately for this exercise, we had relied on a handful of vendors for the majority of our needs, so I found it easy to simply call each place, whether the pet store or our groomer, to find out how much we had spent. Again, as with medical expenses, I had relied on the wisdom of the Internet and also casual friends for ballpark figures of the first-year costs. Guess what? I experienced another shock when I saw the numbers in black and white. Dogs are known to lower stress, but they also demand fiscal responsibility.

Myth: You can easily get a puppy and spend under $1,000 the first year.

Reality: Sommer’s First Year, By the Numbers

  • Healthcare: $2,440
  • Fence: $1,700
  • Pet store expenses, including food, treats, and chewy sticks; toys; collars and tags, harnesses and leashes; heartworm and flea and tick medications; crate and playpen; dishes; beds: $1,270
  • Boarding and daycare: $700
  • Grooming: $425
  • Training: $450
  • Carpet cleaning (due to housetraining accidents): $260

TOTAL $7,245

If I set aside medical costs and fencing, we would have cut our costs by more than half – down to not much more than $3,000. And to be honest, that amount is more in line with what I expect to spend on an annual basis going forward.

Many of the one-time costs, such as the fence, and medical procedures such as spaying and vaccinations, are behind us now. A lot of rookie pup mom errors are behind me. I have learned my lesson about leaving things lying around the house within pup’s reach, and I fervently hope that will reduce the likelihood of any further emergency hospital visits!

Even some of the larger purchases from pet stores are behind us as well. We should be set for a while regarding a crate and bed, dishes, collars and leashes and heartworm and flea and tick medications. With any luck at all, the carpet cleaning expenses will also shrink – although that might be overly optimistic, as there is always the prospect of an occasional accident or even muddy-paws-in-the-house fiasco. As far as training, I plan to do a leash walking class before her first year is up, but after that, I expect that we will be done with most of the paid training, as I now have been trained in how to train her. Now the task ahead is to keep up with practicing what we learned in class.

I give myself a B- on my effort there, so far. Who knows, I might wind up deciding to do some additional classes this winter, to give us an activity during the long, cold months, and to make sure we don’t forget everything we learned.

What I Learned (The Hard Way)

Don’t rely on Internet estimates of first-year costs. They are myths! The reality is that you’re likely to spend double what you think, so take a look at my costs, and budget accordingly. Many of the costs were somewhat fixed, but one thing I wish I would have done was given myself a budget for discretionary items, such as treats, toys and chew sticks. It was far too easy to pick up an extra toy while browsing in a pet store or splurge on expensive chewy sticks when Sommer would be just as happy with a less expensive option. We pup moms love our pups! And that’s a good thing. So while an occasional splurge would have been completely fine, I could have cut back a bit if I had given myself the parameters of a budget.

Lessons Learned from My Vet

  • At this seven-month-old age, your pup may careen from one behavior extreme to the next. Sommer would be completely confident one moment and then jump at the sound of the mailman’s truck the next. This is normal!
  • Teaching your pup to deal with its fears and concerns is paramount at this age. You don’t want a dog that has permanent fears imprinted because of experiences at this age.

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About Puppy Diaries

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

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 coffeemaker 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 Pup Mom to a litter of new puppies. I’ve got my hands full with the one I have! Secondly, 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 for 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.

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.