“So,” I ask the customer walking the kennel rows. “What are you looking for in a dog?” I’m a volunteer adoption counselor at the pound, see. It’s my job to make sure people are matched with the right dog. It’s fascinating. Lots of adopters I meet have no idea what a dog is! Often when I ask an adopter this question, they get this far-away look. “Well,” they begin. “I’m looking for a dog to be a companion for my kids, and be like a protector, you know? One that’s friendly and likes to cuddle. I don’t want one that sheds or barks a lot. And I work a lot, so it should be okay with being home alone. Oh, and I want it to be a puppy, too.”
Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep a straight face. I’m usually tempted to laugh and say, “me too! Tell me when you find this magical creature.” Instead I bite my tongue and politely explain why they should maybe lower their expectations. In an effort to combat this Fairy Tale Dog syndrome, here are some things that shelter/rescue workers and dog trainers everywhere would like people to understand.
1. Puppies are so irresistibly adorable for a reason
Pure survival. It’s so we don’t toss them out on the street when they drive us insane with all the biting, chewing, peeing, and crying at all hours of the night. Puppies are hard work, boys and girls. You will be sleep deprived. You will be up to your ears in pet stain remover. You will lay awake at night wondering if you’ve met your puppy’s socialization and training requirements for the week (at least, you should).
If puppies actually LOOKED like the little gremlins they are, there is no way we would ever work this hard.
2. Most first-time dog owners would be better off with an older pup or adult dog
Did that last bit make you nervous? It should have. Taking on responsibility for any dog is a big commitment, but young puppies around 2-4 months of age are an enormous commitment. It’s easy for a beginner to get overwhelmed. Older pups and adult dogs make wonderful pets without the risk of puppy-owner burnout.
3. Dogs make TERRIBLE gifts
Thinking of surprising your child/spouse/fill-in-the-blank with a furry bundle of joy? Don’t. Just don’t. You are setting yourself up for trouble. A dog is not a Wii. When the recipient gets bored or just doesn’t connect with the dog, you will be the one responsible for the care and training. Instead of a surprise gift, involve your giftee in the process. Discuss it with them, make sure everyone is on the same page, and let them pick their own dog.
4. Dogs are really expensive
Even if you get one free or cheap from a friend or shelter. For the next 8-15 years, you’ll be spending money on dog food, pet supplies and vaccinations. And what happens when Fido gets sick, hit by a car or swallows something he shouldn’t? Before you get a dog, consider how you will pay for unexpected medical bills.
5. Dogs do not do well in solitary confinement
Dogs need to be with their family. If you work or are at school all day, will the dog be left alone? It isn’t fair to leave these highly social creatures to fend for themselves for ten hours a day. All kinds of behavior problems will arise. Either work out a way for someone to visit with the dog in the middle of the day, or consider a cat instead. Or perhaps a hamster.
6. Dogs shed
Even the short haired ones. Once you have a dog, hair EVERYWHERE becomes as certain as death and taxes. You’ll find dog hair on your good clothes, in your food and up your nose. If this thought makes you ill, consider an American Hairless Terrier, poodle, or goldfish. If the idea of dog hair EVERYWHERE is annoying but tolerable, then you can have a dog, just stay away from the double coated types. Dogs like German shepherds, huskies, akitas, malamutes, etc are SERIOUS shedders. Try a thin- or curly-coated breed.
7. Dogs bark
Especially if left alone all day. See No. 5 above. Dogs bark when the doorbell rings, when they hear other dogs barking, and when they’re bored. If you’re really lucky, you’ll end up with a dog like mine who likes to bark at contrails.
8. Your dog will pee/poop/puke on your carpet
When you get a dog, you will almost certainly need to housetrain him yourself. In the meantime, there will be accidents. And your dog will occasionally eat something bad and puke or get diarrhea. And he’ll do it in the worst place possible, like on your antique rug or on the newly installed carpeting. This is one of those weird laws of the universe.
9. Dogs need socialization, training, and exercise
Dogs are not born knowing how to be a perfect member of society. They do not automatically know that they should come when you call them. They do not always understand that the guests at your party are people that you know and invited and not, in fact, scary monsters. And dogs of all breeds need exercise. Letting them run around in the backyard is not enough.
Want a well-behaved dog? You gotta work for it! Proper socialization, training and exercise are crucial.
10. Dogs who get bored get destructive
If you don’t give your dog something to do, she will find something to do. Usually, it’ll be something you don’t want, like digging, tearing up the sofa or barking at contrails. This is especially true if you get one of those dogs who come with a strong work ethic: herding breeds like border collies, German shepherds, Australian shepherds, cattle dogs; working breeds like dobermans, rotties, or Portuguese water dogs.
So, as you’ve probably worked out by now: Don’t get a dog without putting in some serious thought. Do your research. Learn about the characteristics and requirements of your chosen breed. Learn as much as you can about training and socialization. You can even take a trial run. Sign up with your local shelter (which you can find here) as a volunteer or foster parent. Volunteers get hands-on experience with a variety of dogs. Foster parents are usually given puppies who are too young to be adopted, or adult dogs who need to take a break from the shelter system. This lets you take a dog home for a couple weeks and get a taste of what it takes to be a dog owner.
Dog ownership takes work. The good news is that if you’re willing to put in the work, you will be rewarded with a fun, loyal, awesome new friend. Unconditional love, and all that.
Hey dog trainers, rescue people and battle-scarred dog owners: What else should first-time dog adopters know? Let me know in the comments.