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   Thinking About Getting a Dog?

The first question is not "What Kind of Dog" but whether to get a dog. Dog ownership can be a wonderful experience, or it can be miserable for all involved. Although surely different people have evolved different standards for dog ownership it pays to give attention to the practices of those committed to dogs. The practices reflect ways of dog ownership that are least likely to lead to trouble.

I have set out here some thoughts that I hope will make your decision one that will bring you happiness instead of frustration. I don't know that you will agree with all that I have said, but I ask that you read your way through it. It may offer you some ideas that will be useful in your decision making process.

Careful research will improve your chances of success

A major reason for dogs winding up in shelters is owner/dog mismatch. Nothing wrong with the dog, but it needed more training, or it needed more exercise, or it . . . . you've heard it all before. Before you wonder what kind of dog, the question you need to answer is whether you can honestly provide what the dog needs. Then you need to carefully select the dog so that it makes a good match for you and your family. And please don't forget that dogs live from ten to fifteen years or even longer.

The Consequences of Error

Please consider the consequences if you decide you cannot keep the dog. Fewer purebreds are killed in shelters than mixed breeds, yet still something like 25% of the dogs killed in shelters are purebred. The numbers of dogs killed in shelters every year is in the millions. To the surprise of many people that number does include puppies, so no dog is exempt from the risk.

Adult dogs are difficult to place in new homes especially if they have acquired bad habits as the result of not enough training, social contact or exercise. If your inability to provide enough socialization, exercise, mental stimulation, or training allows problems to develop the dog may not be able to find a new home. If a change in your life circumstance makes it difficult for you to keep the dog practically its only chance for survival will be if you worked hard enough to raise a well mannered healthy dog. Older dogs especially are almost impossible to place in new homes, especially the larger breeds. Giving up the older dog is quite often its death sentence. That is often true even for the nice normal dog. There is not necessarily another home available if the dog can no longer stay with you.

Do You Really Want A Dog?

A dog is a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Successfully keeping a dog means attending to its needs for physical and mental stimulation as well as feeding, grooming and cleaning up.

Can You Provide the Socialization a Dog Needs?

It is common enough for a parent to reluctantly agree to get a dog "for the children". But the reluctance usually is reflected in a decision to keep the dog out doors. The parent often recalls that "that's how dogs were always kept, and that's how it should be." Indeed dogs are more commonly kept as indoor pets than they once were. But the living conditions are very different as well. The outside dog in times past was rarely alone. And it is being alone, not outdoors, that causes the trouble for the dog is a social animal. The dog requires companionship for its mental health as much as it requires food for its physical health. A great many outdoor dogs are poorly socialized because they are not made a regular part of the family. This leads to "bad" behavior, like barking, digging, escaping, destructiveness, and aggression, and other problem behaviors. It is possible to keep a dog outdoors and both mentally and physically healthy, but it is a lot of work.

Do You Have the Time for a Dog?

You need to have plenty of time to spend with a dog. A puppy takes more time than a dog. It is a lot of work to teach all the things a dog needs to know to be a fun, healthy happy dog. How much time? Let's start with what an adult dog needs: The average adult dog needs you to play with it, exercise it, teach it good manners, groom it, feed and water it, and let it relieve itself. Count on at least half an hour every morning, and an hour every evening. Some dogs will take more time than that. Puppies take even more time.

The younger the dog the more time you have to add. For very young puppies you will want to take them out to relieve themselves about every two hours. That is one reason why busy people often start with an adult dog instead of a puppy.

Who Will Have the Responsibility?

There should be only one individual responsible for the dog on a daily basis. Sure that person can ask for help, but they are responsible for making sure their "helper" does the job. The dog counts on "its people". Taking care of all the needs of a dog is not all fun. Sometimes it's boring. It can get old. Does the responsible person have trouble getting all their chores done without being reminded? If so, it might not yet be time to get a dog. Having a dog is a responsibility.

The ultimate responsibility for the dog must rest with the adult. If the adult members of the family are not willing to take the responsibility then it is not appropriate to get the dog. Remember, getting rid of a dog because a child failed to care for it may disappoint the child, but it will very likely be the death of the dog.

Do You Have the Patience?

Puppies are babies. They will do things that make you mad, just because they are learning. And as they grow up they act just like teenagers. They try to get away with doing what they want, instead of what you want. And adult dogs often were not properly taught, they need help learning. Even adult dogs have rather poor impulse control. While their intelligence can be as high as that of a six or seven year old human, the impulse control is more like that of a three year old. Being firm is OK. Getting angry is useless, and can make things worse. Teaching in a way that makes your dog healthy and happy, instead of afraid or angry, takes patience and understanding.

Getting rid of a dog for misbehavior can have some serious and adverse effects on the children in the family. The child will, in most cases, love the dog despite its behavior. And they cannot help but wonder if you will plan on getting rid of them as well should their behavior not measure up. Also consider the lessons learned. When a task is difficult do you give up? or work it through? Before getting a dog think about how you will handle it if the dog turns out to need more work than you thought.

Can You and Other in the Family Provide the Needed Consistency?

Dogs don't speak human. They learn by what we do, not by what we say. So if you sometimes mean "sit" when you say "sit", and other times mean "go away" when you say "sit" don't be surprised if the dog never learns what "sit" means to you! They like knowing whether when you use a word whether you mean "you must" or whether you are saying "you may". Does the word "sit" mean "You must sit" or does it mean "sit if you want to, otherwise don't bother"? The dog wants you to mean it the same way every time.

Dogs love routine. They love getting up at the same time every day, and you coming home at the same time. If you come home late the dog may become anxious and therefore destructive. Not all dogs do this, and many out grow it as they gain confidence, but it is a normal event. It is best to learn how to avoid such incidences before you ever get the dog, and expect it to happen anyway, at least once. If this isn't something you can live with, then don't get a dog.

Are You Comfortable Asking for Help?

Since you had the good sense to investigate obviously you know something about this already. But there are times when you need to ask even though you might be shy, or feel silly or stupid. Don't worry. The stupid questions are the ones that you never ask. If you ask, and if you listen, that is the right thing to do.

Is Your Family Cooperative?

You need help. Everyone who shares the house must feel ok about having a dog in the house. Dogs naturally live their lives in groups and most are very unhappy if they are left alone in a yard. They don't want a big yard to run in half as much as they want the warm smell of you when you are away, and your face to kiss when you are home. If you can't keep the dog in the house it is a bad idea to get the dog. Keeping a dog outdoors most of the time fails more often than it succeeds.

Everyone who shares the house must be willing to learn how to help teach the dog good manners, and not confuse the dog by using the same words to mean different things. And you will need help if you are sick, or if you need to be away for a short time.

What are Your Long Term Plans?

You always need to be one step ahead. What will change for you and the dog in the future, will you be going away to school? going to work? and if you go away can you take the dog? if the dog can't go with you what will happen to it?

Always think about what comes next. Find out about puppy kindergarten before you get the puppy, find out about dog training classes before your puppy gets out of kindergarten, think about fun things to do with your dog to keep both of you busy and active.

What Things Are Important to You in Choosing a Dog?

Things to think about in choosing the right dog ar care requirements, activity level (indoors and outdoors they are different), training, personality, size and more. Before you start thinking about what kind of dog, think about yourself and your family. Think about what kinds of things you like to do in your free time - inside the house or outside, away from home, or in the yard, are you a social person with lots of friends or visiotrs? How clean is clean enough in your household? Are you a natrual leader, do you consider yourself a "get along" kind of person? Do you love snuggling, or are you put off by that? All of these things can make the difference between the perfect dog for you, and unhappiness all around.

The dog that is perfect for me might not be a good dog for you. Some dogs have short hair that needs just a little brushing, some people enjoy dogs with long hair that needs careful care every day. A short hair dog might shed a lot or hardly at all. The same with a long haired dog. It is also important to know that a low shedding dog is not the same as a low grooming dog. Some people prefer dogs that adore their people, and some people prefer dogs that are a little more independent. And what do you want to do with the dog? Just hang out?Do you love to run and hike? Then the right dog for you might not be the same one that is perfect for the person who leads a more sedentary life. The right sized dog is more related to its indoor activity level than the size of the space. Some very large dogs make great apartment dogs, and some very small dogs make lousy apartment dogs.

There are lots of things to think about when choosing a dog. So be very careful and choose the right one for you.

Are You Ready for the Commitment?

These books are about RAISING AND TRAINING dogs: You should be reading these books before you get a dog. These books will help you understand your commitment.

Start here:

Before & After Getting Your Puppy " by Ian Dunbar
What All Good Dogs Should Know by Volhard
How To Raise A Puppy You Can Live With Book & Video Set by Rutherford and Neil
Dr. Dunbar's Good Little Dog Book by Dunbar
"Living With Kids And Dogs...Without Losing Your Mind" by Colleen Pelar
"Sirius Puppy Training Video" by Ian Dunbar
"Dog Training For Children Video" by Ian Dunbar
"Superpuppy Training Manual" by Peter & Nancy Vollmer
"How To Housebreak Your Dog In 7 Days" by Shirlee Kalstone

Choosing A Dog That Fits Your Needs

"There are important breed differences in almost every aspect of behavior and physique, and even in the development of social relationships." From Scott and Fuller "Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs"

The first thing to do is to use some resources to help you decide what might work best for you. Then it is time to go and meet some dogs. Go to where the dogs are, dog parks and dog walking areas, dog shows of all kinds, agility, flyball, conformation, even herding trials. Meet the dogs and talk to their owners. But do the research first, or you will miss out on some important questions to ask.

Some quick hints. People searching for a "low shedding" dog frequently say they want a short haired dog. Hair length is not a good indication of the amount of shedding. The same of low allergy dogs. People looking for apartment dogs often specify "small" in the mistaken belief that a large dog will be unhappy in a small apartment. Size is not a good indication of activity level and exercise needs. Finally people looking for a dog to add to a family with children often specify "small to medium" - again size is not necessarily a good indication of suitability with children. Very small dogs, especially, are often seriously injured by children quite accidentally. If you have, or are expecting, to have both dogs and children there are some additional considerations covered on my Kids and Dogs page.

Good Research Sources

I like "The Right Dog For You " by Daniel Tortora. It does a wonderful job of helping you explore what it is that you want (and don't want) in a dog. It asks you questions you never even thought of, and provides good insight into developing your own answers. The most valuable part of the book is these questions. Take the time to work through it, it's well worth the effort.

The downside of Tortora's book is that it is out of date, and some people (who would know better than I) say the breed descriptions are not as accurate as two more recent publications: "Your Purebred Puppy" by Michele Welton (Lowell) or "A Perfect Match" by Chris Walkowicz. So start with the Tortora book, get an idea of the qualities that will suit your family, then look to the other books to discover which dogs have those qualities.

A shelter or rescue dog might be just the perfect answer. Many of these are fine dogs that got to the shelter or rescue because their previous owner did not do their homework. Adult dogs, in particular, are often a good choice because their needs are not so time intensive as puppies. Moreover, the adult dog offers a degree of predictability. A GOOD shelter or rescue evaluation can really do a good job of matching dog to owner. Here are some books to read to learn more about shelter and rescue dogs.

Time to Make the Selection

When you decide to get your dog don't just take the first cute furry face that comes along. It may be hard but it is well worth it to apply temperament tests, carefully evaluate the dog, and wait for the one that is truly right for your family. You CAN'T save them all, but you CAN save the one that has the best chance of having a happy life with you, and that is the one that matches your family.

And if you do decide to go for a purebred, don't waste your money on a pet store dog, or one from a casual breeder (one who may love their dog, but doesn't know, for example, what genetic health checks to do before deciding to breed). Most dogs have potential for genetic disease, often not showing up until you have become completely attached to the dog - older than two, sometimes much older. If you are paying big money for a dog (over $100) then part of what you should be paying for is a reduced risk of genetic disease and attention to sound physical and mental health. That doesn't happen with the casual breeder and especially not with the pet-store dog.

A good resource on finding and selecting a dog is "Dog Adoption" by Joan Hustance Walker.

Some More Resources

Responsible Breeding - Responsible Breeder Links - What to Expect of the Responsible Breeder
Canine Connections Breed Information Index
Dogs for the Allergic?
On Choosing
Before You Get a Dog

I know you want a dog. But please, make sure you are ready for a dog as well. Good information from Sandi Dremel

Rescue and Shelter links

Pet Selector Sites

Here are some on line sites for pet selection. Please use them for fun, use them for ideas but don't use them for choosing. Some of these sites give just plain wrong information.

Most of the "pet selector" sites (not all) are actually worse than useless because they provide misinformation and perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes. Among the most common misdirections are recommending dogs for apartments by size instead of indoor activity level (which differs from outdoor activity level) and recommending dogs with short hair for people who answer that they want a dog that doesn't shed much. Another significant area of misdirection is failure to explain the difference between intelligence, trainability and obedience. These are three very different qualities. The most important failing, however, is not really quantifying answers.

Terms like "active" or "medium sized" are much too vague to really be useful. For example, one selector asks "How much time can you spend exercising the dog outdoors each day?" But then they don't quantify it. Instead they give a range from "very little" to "a lot" My "a lot" can be very different from your "a lot". I've seen people brag about how they take their dog out for two fifteen mintutes a day saying how their dog gets "a lot" of exercise. But whether it actually is "a lot" depends on the breed. That's pretty good for a pug, and pretty pathetic for a border collie.

Much better is "Dog needs two hour long walks per day" or "yard exercise is enough for this dog" etc So a good selector will list how long daily INTERACTIVE exercise will last and give examples (walks off the property; playing at the dog park; biking, jogging or rollerblading; fetch or frisbee; etc).

Lots of people make the very serious mistake of believing that a really large yard means they are perfectly set up for a very active dog. And most selectors encourage this error. A good selector should not just provide a selection of answers but make sure the person understands the implications. A good selector helps a person know that "low shedding" and "not much grooming" are entirely different qualities and often conflicting qualities. Yes, they are fun, and interesting. And I can certainly see how some can be useful. But they are a lot MORE useful when someone first has researched dog qualities so they can better evaluate the quality of the responses.

Even the best usually don't help you learn what you need to know. They ask you questions without proper context. Not understanding the consequences of your selection means you don't get as valid an answer as you might. I still include these sites because, well, because maybe if you get enough very different answers you will stop and think about it.

PetNet Selectapet Dog Breed Selection

Pet Selector from Waltham


Additional articles on selecting your dog and related topics.

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