by Beth McEwen
Have you been considering adding a furry family member to your household? Before you make that leap, there are some important steps you need to take, along with some tough questions to ask yourself to make sure you’re ready. Adding a dog to your household is a 10 to 15 year commitment–almost the equivalent of having another child! As such, adopting a pup should be considered seriously and with care before succumbing to those cute little eyes. Here are the most important concepts to consider:
Family and Lifestyle
The average household has one or both parents working, kids attending school and a myriad of extracurricular activities leaving you to consider whose responsibility a new dog will be and where he will fit with everyone’s busy schedule. The amount of daily effort involved can vary widely, depending on the age and breed of the dog. Regular responsibilities include feeding, grooming, daily walking/exercising, training, cleaning up messes, routine and emergency veterinary visits, etc.
Reflect on what your lifestyle is like. Are you a homebody, or constantly out and about? Do you have frequent visitors and ample of activity in your household? Do you travel often and, when you do, will you bring your dog? Do you have other pets that will need to get along with a new-comer? An honest assessment of your lifestyle will be imperative in deciding whether you are ready to add another member to your family.
If you have kids under seven years old, they may not be developmentally suited for puppies five months old and under, or toy-sized (under 15 pounds) dogs of any age. Puppies have extra-sharp “milk teeth” and toenails which can unintentionally hurt children through scratching or teething. Toy dogs are fine-boned and physically sensitive, and may not weather rough or clumsy handling well. They break relatively easily and may be quicker to bite than their larger-boned, mellower relatives.
In most cases, a medium-to-large sized dog over five months old is generally a good choice when joining a household with children in it. Regardless of size, all interactions between small children and dogs should be monitored by a responsible adult. When there is no one to watch over them, they should be separated to ensure safety.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is wise to consider elderly or physically challenged individuals in your household. If so, strong, vigorous, adolescent dogs may not be a wise idea. These large “teenage” dogs don’t always know their own strength and may accidentally injure their family during play.
The average lifespan of a dog can be 10 to 15 years, during which time your life will undergo many changes. Truly think about the long-haul when considering getting a dog and if so, what age the dog should be upon adoption. (If the kids are about to graduate high school and you are intending to spend your retirement traveling, now may not be the best time to adopt a puppy.)
The True Cost of Dog Ownership
The price to obtain a dog ranges from “free-to-a-good-home” to thousands of dollars. It’s not always true that you get what you pay for. “Registered” dogs can be quite pricey, and unless you intend to campaign your pup on the show circuit registration may not be crucial to your decision. Designer cross-breeds are very popular right now, which drives up the price exponentially. Regardless of status claim, you will find irresponsible breeders out to make a quick buck selling poorly bred dogs with significant health or temperament issues. Be cautious when examining a dog you’re about to purchase. Rescued dogs are generally on the lower-cost side of the spectrum and have had many of their veterinary needs (neutering, starter vaccines, etc.) met already.
Unfortunately, many folks spend all their available cash on an expensive purebred pup, then discover that they have no money left for necessary expenses, including initial veterinary care, a training crate or obedience classes. Remember, the purchase price of a dog is only a fraction of what the dog will actually cost. Be sure to save money for:
- Food (especially if it is a large or giant breed)
- Grooming (fancy coated breeds such as Poodles, Cockers and Shih Tzus need to be clipped every 4 to 6 weeks)
- Chew toys (the vigorous chewers like a Bull Terrier or Mastiff can work their way through a $8 rawhide bone in a single sitting)
- Outerwear (short-coated breeds must have sweaters and coats in the winter)
- Miscellaneous supplies (bowls, beds, brushes, shampoos, flea prevention, odor neutralizers, baby gates, leashes, collars, heartworm preventative, etc.).
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that the first year of dog ownership may cost anywhere from $1,314 for smaller dogs to $1,843 for the largest breeds.
Don’t forget to account for the veterinary emergencies that may arise. Very few dogs live their entire lives without at least one unexpected medical incident. These surprises can cost $500 or more. Pet insurance can be an option to help offset hefty medical bills, but can cost upwards of $225 per year.
The “How much can I spend?” question is not only a question of money. You’re also considering how much time and energy can you spend on a new dog. Various breeds and ages create different demands on our spare time. In general, the Sporting, Hound, Herding and Terrier breeds will demand more time in training and daily exercise than the Guardian or Companion breeds. A puppy or adolescent will need more exercise, training and supervision than an adult dog. The first year with any new dog regardless of age or breed will put more demands on the owner than any other time, just like with an infant. This is the time period to set house rules and routines that will last throughout your dog’s lifetime.
What Kind Should I Get and Where?
Being honest with yourself about your family needs, lifestyle and budget, should narrow your list down quite a bit. While many of us have fond memories or fantasies of owning a specific breed, we must realize that our households look very different now than they did back in the ‘50s, ‘60s or even the ‘80s! A few general thoughts to keep in mind when choosing a dog:
- It’s wise to adopt a dog with an energy level slightly lower than your own. Your dog won’t be able to go everywhere with you and a stir-crazy pup is likely to create his own forms of (generally destructive) entertainment.
- Don’t generalize based on breed, but do consider the characteristics of that breed. Remember dogs have been bred for thousands of years for specific jobs. Sporting breeds are bred to hunt, Terriers are bred to catch and kill vermin and Herding dogs are bred to run in circles all day. Keep these characteristics in mind when evaluating what breed (or mix of breeds) is right for your household.
- Purebred vs. rescue is obviously a personal decision for each family. Should you decide on a purebred dog, do your research on the breeders you are considering. Pet shops and backyard breeders take little consideration in deciding which animals to breed and many have questionable care practices. With the overpopulation in shelters around the country and the high numbers of euthanization (4.5 million pets a year according to the Human Society) adopting a dog is one of the best things you can do to help this problem.
- Quality dog breeders, breed rescue groups, animal shelters/humane societies and animal rescue organizations all are options for finding your new furry friend. If you are going the purebred route, you can find breeder listings on various registration websites (AKC, CKC, UKC, etc.), which are good starting points for your research. PetFinder is a tremendous catalog for rescued pets, both purebred and mixed breeds. Beware of any Craiglist animal postings–it is not uncommon to find stolen dogs being sold this way.
- Don’t overlook the senior dogs. Older dogs can be wonderful companions for less-active households and have usually had some previous training. Adopting a senior dog allows you to skip the teething stage and “teenage years” and help make the Golden Years of an aging dog comfortable and meaningful.
Fostering a Dog
Still undecided? Consider fostering a dog first. Fostering is an incredibly important part of rescuing a dog. It’s also a responsible way to know whether you’re ready to take a new dog into your life and properly care for it. Even if you decide that this particular dog isn’t a match for you, he may be the perfect dog for someone else who better matches his energy level or lack thereof. There are even local foster programs for raising Assistance Dog puppies!
Fostering can allow you and your family to give back, making a tremendous contribution to the independence of a person with a disability by helping start their future Assistance Dog’s training and socialization during the most critical developmental periods of that pup’s life. During your foster experience, you will be provided with training classes that will help you work with your future keeper-dog.
Consulting with a training professional can also help you work through all these important considerations to help you evaluate if you are ready for a dog and decide which dog that might be. Give your new furry family member their best chance by setting them (and yourself) up for success!