Ask the Trainer: Getting a dog? Have a plan!
Q: My husband and I think we’re ready to get a family dog. We want to adopt from a shelter or rescue and we have two young kids. Any advice?
A: The decision to adopt a dog, if given the consideration due, is a weighty one. It sounds like you’ve done the due diligence – an honest appraisal of the time, money and energy required to properly care for and train your dog – and you’re ready to roll. Great! Now what?
First, thank you for taking the socially responsible (and extremely gratifying!) route of saving a dog from a shelter or rescue organization. Before you begin your search, do some soul searching and a gut check with the following in mind:
Accept and embrace who’s really going to be in charge.
Before you’ve even laid eyes on a potential new dog, plan on spending a few weeks (and a few bucks) preparing your home and your human pack for the arrival of its newest member. Doggy will need a place to sleep, eat, hang out, potty and play, along with regular walks and exercise. Now is the time to create the chore list and assign doggy tasks to family members.
Speaking of chores…
As trainers, we work with a lot of families who adopt or purchase dogs as gifts for children. While we love the spirit of the gesture, we offer a note of caution: just assume that at the end of the day, the adults will be left holding the poop bag, so to speak.
Kids can help with certain things, like preparing a dog’s bed or exercise pen, or offering calm and constructive playtime. However, feeding, walking and consistent potty breaks should be handled primarily by the “pack leaders” of the family, at least in the first few weeks of the dog’s arrival. If you’re adopting a puppy, count on the grownups doing most of the work for the first few months. This leadership and structure will create a routine that will put your dog at ease and help keep family drama to a minimum.
Be realistic about what type of dog.
Before you become a regular on Petfinder.com and start making regular trips to the shelters, do a realistic appraisal of what physical and behavioral characteristics would best suit a dog to your family and your lifestyle.
Energy level: Energy level is arguably the most important thing to consider when selecting a dog. High energy levels – due to physical needs, or excited, anxious or dominant temperament – usually translate into a high exercise requirement. Breed type can be (but is not always) an indicator of energy levels, so do your research.
If you’re a high-energy, physically active person, a working-breed or working-breed mix might be a great dog for you. Pick a Lab-mix because you love to run and play and swim, or a Beagle-blend because you have lots of property this scent hound can explore (and not-too-close neighbors who won’t be affected by a Beagle’s excited barking).
If your family is more low-key, and physical exercise (other than a leash walk – all dogs need leash walks) is not a regular part of your life, choose a dog from a non-sporting or non-working breed category.
Bottom line, do your research! As trainers, the most common problem we see is simply a mismatch between dogs and their owners; well-meaning individuals who have selected the wrong dog for their family and lifestyle.
Exercise requirement: Unfortunately it is easy to underestimate a dog’s exercise requirement. It’s not always as simple as big dog = more exercise, little dog = less exercise. In fact, if you’re talking terriers, the opposite is usually true. Oftentimes well-meaning owners don’t realize that their dog’s undesirable and destructive behaviors (inappropriate chewing, excessive barking and rambunctious house or leash manners) are largely a result of pent-up energy.
For example, a young Lab-mix will require off-leash playtime in addition to one or two leash walks a day. A Mastiff-mix might be perfectly happy with one nice long walk, but she might need extra time learning how to socialize with doggy friends. Doing research about breeds and asking a lot of questions of shelter staff or a professional trainer are the smartest things you can do when assessing how much exercise you should plan on giving your dog. Don’t be surprised if a treadmill is mentioned…treadmills are great for supplementing a dog’s exercise requirements and most any dog can be taught to walk on a treadmill. Start looking for a used one if you don’t already own a treadmill (if my own neighborhood is any evidence, there’s bound to be one or two serving as clothes racks or collecting dust in your neighbors’ garages).
In the meantime, download for free “Bringing Home Your New Dog: A Little Bit about Everything You Need to Know”.
Disclosure: My experienced colleague and owner of The Local Bark, Kristin Minnie, and I help dogs and their owners with a variety of obedience and behavior problems.