Getting a new canine companion? Things to consider.

There is nothing more exciting than planning to adopt a new dog or puppy. Every time my husband and I have anticipated bringing a new dog into our lives, we’ve planned, dreamed, shopped, and dreamed some more. This excitement is largely due to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brains that makes us desire things. The book The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman M.D. and Michael Long points out that desiring something and actually having it are two entirely different things. In terms of dogs, this means that the urge to get a puppy or a dog might be very different from the way we feel once the puppy is home unleashing his needle-sharp baby teeth on our skin when all we we want to do is play or snuggle. Or the distress we feel when he messes in the house or shreds our favorite shoes. It is also hard to deal with a newly acquired adult dog who barks incessantly at every new noise he hears, cowers at the sound of a garbage truck, or acts like every person or dog he passes is his arch enemy. We might want to love our new dogs, but the very act of caring for them before we’ve developed a strong relationship can be crushing. This was the case with Vera, our beloved German shepherd in the featured photo above. My novel, Finding Vera, is a fictionalized account of our life with her.

It turns out that unwanted behaviors are not uncommon in puppies or newly adopted dogs, and while time and patience and help from a good trainer will get you through this initial period and allow you to develop a deep, lasting love for your well-behaved, adoring dog, the first months or even the first year of living with them can be challenging. So, whether you’re getting a puppy or dog for yourself or someone else, there are many things you can do to prepare for the initial phase with your new companion.

Puppies, although absolutely adorable, require exponentially more time, attention, and training than you could imagine. It’s well worth the effort, but before you bring a puppy into your life, you need to be prepared for an immediate change in your lifestyle. I would also recommend downloading the two books Before You Get Your Puppy, and After You Get Your Puppy by Dr. Ian Dunbar for some good advice on how to get off on the right foot with your puppy.

That said, the deep emotional bond we build with our dogs is worth every minute of work we put into them. We need to understand that just like us, they are intelligent, emotional creatures who crave companionship, communication, love, and stability in their lives.

Things to Consider

  • Before you start to plan, consider if you really, truly want a dog. Dogs are expensive (they have allergies, illnesses, and injuries that require vet visits; both you and your dog require education and training; many breeds require regular grooming. Dogs can be very annoying and demanding of your time, they can be destructive, they can bark much more than we feel they need to, and they can have behavior issues that could change your life. You can’t take them to National Parks (other than to drive through and explore a few brief designated walks). They get wet in the rain and require their paws and coats dried whenever they come inside (and dogs do need to live inside with us). Many breeds require regular grooming–at the very least, all dogs need their nails trimmed and teeth brushed on a regular basis to avoid problems in the future.
  • If you still want to get a dog, think about what kind of dog will suit your lifestyle. Are you someone who hikes a lot? Runs? Mountain bikes? Do you want a companion to accompany you? If so, you would want to look at dogs who are athletic rather than dogs who have less endurance. For instance, large breeds such as German shepherds (who can be plagued with joint problems) and giant breeds might not be the best choice for you if you are a runner or mountain biker, whereas medium-sized hunting or herding breeds, or mixes might do better. For example, our golden retrievers have always had much more endurance than our collies. Pushing dogs to do more than what they are capable of can cause injuries and exhaustion.
    • If you have a calmer lifestyle and don’t get out as much, choose a breed that doesn’t require as much exercise, realizing that the stimulation and exercise of a thirty minute daily walk is important for all dogs. Terriers are often high-energy dogs who require training, mental stimulation, and daily exercise, so though they are smaller, they might not be a good choice for someone with a more sedentary lifestyle.
    • Consider the age of the main caretaker. If you are getting a dog for a child, realize that if you adopt a puppy, he’ll be with you for 12-14 years, and will most likely be your responsibility (not your child’s) for most of his life. If you are an older adult (or getting the dog for an older adult), realize that you won’t be able to handle a large, strong dog like you once did. I met an older woman once who had adopted a Great Dane puppy because she’d always had Danes. Within the first year she had fractured her shoulder and had many other injuries from being pulled down by her dog.
  • If you are adopting a dog from a shelter, realize that once you get him home, your new companion will likely be very different from the dog you met at the shelter or foster home. Although I knew and worked with Vera at the shelter for six months before we adopted her (we didn’t want another dog, but I couldn’t bear to lose her to euthanasia), her behavior changed significantly a short time after we got her home.
    • If you can, meet your dog at least a few times before taking him home so you get to know each other.
    • If you have other animals, plan how and when you will make introductions.
    • Get your supplies ready, and prepare an area where he will feel safe when he’s alone. Sometimes the entire house is just too much space, and a small room such as a mudroom with his bed, toys, crate, and water (with all non-dog articles, such as shoes, removed) in a location separate from your other animals, will help to keep your house safe and keep your new dog feeling secure. Sturdy baby gates can help with this and are versatile enough to allow you to separate your new dog from your other animals until they are comfortable together. Barriers will come in handy throughout your dog’s life. Assume your new dog will not be house trained when you first bring him home, and his safe area can be used to help house train him.
    • Decide who in your family will walk your dog, train him, and feed him before you bring him home. Consistency in handling and routine will help him to adapt more easily. Decide what things you’ll allow your dog to do in your home such as: will he be allowed to get on the furniture, or sleep in bed with you etc. It’s always best to start off with stricter rules until you get to know your dog well. Some dogs are pushy, others are not.
  • Find a positive rewards trainer in your area. Even if you’ve trained a dog in the past, your new dog could have challenges you might never have known existed. A trainer can help you work through these issues. We’ve lived with several dogs during our lives, and they’ve all had different problems. We’ve loved them all deeply, but all have had some at least one challenging behavior we’ve had to learn to work through.
  • Dogs are most often relinquished (1.5 million dogs per year) or euthanized (670,000 dogs per year per ASPCA statistics) because of behavior issues, so by getting help with training and behavior issues early on, you greatly increase the chance that you and your dog will have a successful, life-long relationship. Preventing unwanted behaviors is the best way to help your dog, and whether you are adopting a puppy or an adult dog, a new start with clear boundaries is a great way to help him be a responsible member of society.