Puppies: Pandemonium or Perfection?
Making the right choices.
Getting a new puppy can be like inviting a rampaging, destructive two-year-old – but faster, with sharper teeth, and even less regard for your sensibilities- into your home. New dog owners are often dumbfounded at how quickly puppies can get into fresh trouble before the last mess has even been noticed. House training itself can be an exhausting endeavour, sapping the resources of even the most saintly.
Furthermore, many people initially captivated by a soft fuzzy muzzle have no idea of what that adorable creature’s adult predilections will be. Someone who grows up with a quiet, steady Lab opts for a sweet-looking baby Border Collie, expecting the same sort of experience. Pretty dog, convenient size-what more is there to concern oneself with? At this point, many readers who actually own Border Collies are probably saying: A lot.
It turns out that there is plenty of self-educating to do if one wants to have a smooth, crisis-free, long-term relationship with a dog, plus hang on to the Gucci bag that was the only half-decent thing your first husband ever gave you. As Dr. Ian Dunbar says in his fine little book, Before You Get Your Puppy (James & Kenneth Publishers, 2001), "If you … have your heart set on raising and training a puppy, do make sure that you train yourself beforehand. Only get a puppy after you have learned how to raise it. Remember, it takes only a few days to ruin an otherwise perfect puppy." Preparation, and mainly of your own mind (even more than buying the right gear), is key.
The first thing to consider with great seriousness is whether or not a dog is actually the right pet for you. While unquestionably rewarding, responsible dog ownership is extremely time consuming and will occupy the next 10 to 15 years of your life. What is your family situation and is everyone else on board? Are you dreaming of exploring Australia or circumnavigating the globe in a 20-foot sailboat in the next few years? If you live alone and work full-time, you’ll need to devote most of your evenings to hanging out with your four-footed friend, as dogs are highly social creatures and require at least a little companionship each day. You can’t just shove them in the closet whenever you happen to be smitten with a new sweetie. Owning a dog will change many aspects of your life; be sure you are ready.
The next item to think carefully about is: which breed is right for you? Most people choose their dogs like they choose their mates, by looks and charisma. We won’t go into divorce rates here, and appearance and physical structure are indeed important: We generally enjoy looking at our dogs and may want them to participate in certain of our activities. However, temperament is important too. If you’re a quiet, thoughtful person who likes to read, do you want a needy, demanding speed freak around all the time, staring at you, agitating for stimulation and exercise? If you have young children, do you want an edgy, snappy, or timid companion for them? Just like people, dogs have psychological as well as physical needs; unlike people, different breeds vary greatly in much more than size and appearance. Many good books and websites exist to help a prospective dog owner research the many different dog breeds available, their histories, what they were selected for, and their relative strengths and shortcomings. There’s nothing wrong with mixed-breed dogs, either- especially if you have some idea of an individual’s breeding so you (kind of) know what you’re getting.
It is possible that a puppy is not even the best choice for you. While it’s relatively temporary, puppies take far more time and attention than adult dogs do. Single people who work fulltime would do well to consider different options. There are many wonderful adult dogs languishing at shelters and breed rescue organizations all across the continent. As many traits and habits in these individuals will have already been formed, it is crucial to "test drive" any prospective pet and to be willing to walk away if necessary. Shelter staff or well-informed friends can be invaluable in helping to assess a dog’s character. See how the dog reacts to being handled all over, how he responds to different elements in his environment, and whether he has any manners. While there are many unknowns with an adult dog, it is also true that many of his tendencies will be fairly visible and unlikely to change dramatically (other than for the better) once he gets into a stable, loving home.
If you do opt for a puppy, the time you spend educating yourself beforehand will save you ten times the amount of grief afterward. Especially with regard to house-training, there are some very easy systems that will allow you to get through this period with a minimum of tension, exhaustion and frustration (not to mention cleaning). The main idea is to establish good habits from Day One by minimizing the opportunity for "mistakes." Dogs are creatures of routine, and correct habits, once initiated, are easy to maintain. A crate is now considered almost indispensable and has the added bonus of providing your dog with a lifelong "safe cave" for quiet time or future travel.
Destructive chewing ranks close behind inappropriate elimination in eliciting near-mental breakdown in caretakers. In the book mentioned above, Dunbar provides useful advice for getting a young dog "hooked" on chewtoys. (He recommends KongTM products as the "Cadillac of chewtoys"- indestructible, food-stuffable and natural rubber-and advises against plastic.) Once your pup becomes a "chewtoyaholic," he is unlikely to shift to more expensive items like shoes or furniture once he gains more freedom around the house.
Your new puppy needs you to teach him just about everything. Household etiquette is the most pressing matter, but everyone will benefit if you also teach him to confidently enjoy his own company, to enjoy meeting new people, and to act appropriately with other dogs. Many of these aspects are best and most easily learned while the dog is still young, and in some cases there are critical windows during which things must be introduced. For example, bite inhibition is something puppies normally learn from their littermates before 18 weeks of age. If they bite too hard, the recipient reacts! If you acquire a pup at eight weeks, you’ll need to take over this education right away. Interestingly, Dr. Dunbar does not recommend stopping a puppy from mouthing altogether, as this will actually interfere with his learning how to soften his bites. Inhibition involves using the mouth with control rather than never doing so at all. Play-fighting dogs are good demonstrators of bite inhibition in action- they could easily pierce or tear skin, but choose not to.
There is so much to learn about dogs, about their behavioural and physical development, and how the habits they develop while young will affect their lives through adulthood, that it is impossible to give more than a general overview here. We never even got to food. Or gear. Or… lots of things. The best thing to do is to find a good book (or several) and educate yourself in advance. Libraries and bookstores are full of choices, and they all say slightly different things. It can be daunting, but it’s one of the best investments you could make. As a start, Before You Get Your Puppy is a quick read and full of invaluable advice. Ian Dunbar has also written a "sequel" (entitled, not surprisingly, After You Get Your Puppy) which goes into some of the less urgent aspects of puppy training. The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete (Little, Brown and Co., 1991) is also an excellent choice and covers many additional aspects of puppy care.
Puppy ownership is never easy, but with proper planning you can minimize your stress. Every minute you invest in learning how and what to teach your dog will be repaid a hundredfold. Think, prepare, then if you’re still keen, go for it. There’s nothing so pleasing as a well-mannered dog, and this is within reach for all of us, especially if one starts early. ■
Christine Adkins is a contributing editor at Modern Dog. She knew she’d have a hard time dealing with a puppy, so took a chance and adopted an adult dog of unknown history from a shelter. After almost three years she is still delighted with her choice. This article is dedicated to Roën, who was sold by her first, desperately underprepared owner at 20 weeks.