by Kathy McCartney
Many people adopt dogs without fully understanding what they’re getting into. I know I did. I made a lot of mistakes with our first dog, things I either misunderstood or things I simply didn’t know. And because I had grown up with dogs and was very comfortable with them, I thought I knew more than I did.
I don’t want you to make the mistakes I did, so here are what I think are the top ten things you need to know about sharing your life with a dog. These are all real reasons that dogs are left at shelters or returned to rescues.
As you go through the list, try to picture yourself living day to day with the issue being discussed. Be brutally honest! I think dogs are the most wonderful animals and companions in the world, but dog ownership is not for everyone. If, after reading this, you decide that now is not the time for a dog, take heart! You’ve made the responsible decision. If you decide to jump into life with dogs, now you know some of what you’ll face.
Here are my top ten:
1. Dogs shed
Let’s get this straight right now: ALL dogs shed. Even so-called “non-shedding” breeds shed. They might shed lightly, but they do shed. All mammals do. The only question is, how much will your dog shed? One of my current SCARS dogs sheds more than any other dog I’ve had, more than I had imagined a dog could shed. There is dog hair in the microwave, stuck to the walls, in our food. I have clothes that I no longer wear because I can’t get out of the house without dog hair stuck to me. Lee Livingood once said that if you aren’t willing to think of dog hair as a condiment, then dog ownership is not for you.
Ask yourself: Can I learn to live with dog hair on everything, everywhere, all the time?
Puppy Alert: It is impossible to know how much a mixed-breed puppy will shed until it is full grown and has gone through a full cycle of seasons.
2. Dogs bark
This is another fundamental truth about dogs. And like shedding, it varies from dog to dog. Some dogs bark a LOT, at the door bell, at cats, at other dogs, when they’re excited, etc. etc. Other dogs are much quieter, but until you get the dog home and it has settled in, you won’t know if you have a barker or not. If you live in an apartment or condo, or just like a quiet life, give this careful consideration.
Ask yourself: How much of a problem is it if my dog barks?
3. Dogs are social animals and need to be part of the family
Dogs are pack animals and are hard-wired to be with their pack at all times. Once you bring a dog home, you become its pack and it needs to be with you. If you have a busy life, long work hours, travel a lot, work shifts, spend a lot of time shuttling kids around, and so on, then the hard truth is that you might not have time for a dog. Dogs are highly social and require physical and mental stimulation. If you are already stretched thin trying to do everything in your life, then you should think twice before adding a dog to the mix.
Ask yourself: Do I have the time and lifestyle to include a dog in the majority of my activities?
4. Dogs have different temperaments
Just like humans, dogs have different temperaments. They are born with personalities that are calm or excited, assertive or submissive. These traits are innate, and really don’t change much over the course of the dog’s life. Since a dog’s basic temperament is not going to change, we have to be prepared to adapt. One of my dogs is highly excitable and even after more than 4 years of being fed twice a day she still does her wild and crazy happy dance when food appears. And I still have to insist that she sit and calm down before the food goes down.
As well, dogs can be a little quirky. One of my dogs absolutely refused to relieve himself in the yard. Another of my dogs ate the toilet paper and nothing I tried would make him stop. You must be prepared to accommodate your dog’s temperament and personality quirks.
Ask yourself: Do I have the flexibility to accommodate a dog’s individual needs?
Puppy alert: A puppy’s temperament won’t fully show itself until the puppy is full grown. You have to be ready for anything.
5. Dogs have different activity levels, but all dogs need exercise
As with temperament, dogs are born with different energy levels that are innate. You might end up with a low energy guy — happy to putter around the block a couple of times a day. Or you could get a high energy dog — one that needs a minimum of two hours of vigorous activity to tire it at all. But whatever the energy level of the dog, all dogs must be walked — every day. This is not optional. Your dog will not be healthy or happy if it does not get to walk. And please note: letting it out in the yard does not count! Dogs need to “travel,” and explore the neighbourhood.
Ask yourself: Where in my schedule can I fit in a minimum of two half-hour walks per day?
Puppy Alert: You won’t really know what your puppy’s activity level will be until it is full grown. So be prepared!
6. Dogs must be taught manners
Your friends and family won’t like it if your dog jumps on them, chews their stuff, pees on their jeans or barks incessantly. You won’t like it if your dog won’t come when you call, stay when you tell it to, or jumps on the kitchen table. Basic training is essential. If you are not comfortable training your dog yourself, find a trainer you like and learn how to teach your dog what you expect. A good trainer will help you understand dog behavior and communication, as well as showing you how to teach your dog some basic commands. Training is not about being harsh, it is about building a relationship of trust between human and dog.
Ask yourself: Am I willing to put in the time and effort to teach my dog to be a polite citizen?
7. Dogs and lawns/landscaping are not a good combination
Like shedding and barking, this is another fact of life with dogs. Female dogs’ urine will leave small brown circles all over your lawn. Male dogs will kill the near side of the shrubs around your yard. As well, a dog may love to dig or run laps, both of which can damage your landscaping. It takes a lot of work to have a beautiful garden and it can be upsetting to see it take a beating from a dog.
Ask yourself: Can I tolerate a yard that shows the effects of a dog?
8. Dogs get sick, vets are expensive
The question is not “if,” it’s “when” will my dog need the vet? Every single dog will get sick or injured at some point in its life. Veterinary costs can add up very quickly, especially in the case of chronic conditions. Tests, medications and various procedures can leave you needing to ask for an increase in your credit card limit! I want my dogs to have the best possible care — it’s not about the money. But, I have to find the money to pay the bill. The hard truth is that if you are stretched for cash at the end of the month, you may not be able to afford a dog.
Ask yourself: How easily could I pay a $1,000 vet bill? Or, how easily could I afford pet insurance?
(And, no, $1000 is not outrageous (or even that much) for many procedures, such as a broken bone or dental work, for example.)
9. Dogs require “upkeep” – nails, shots, etc.
Buying food is only the beginning of the cost of having a dog. All dogs need to be kept up to date on their shots, have their nails clipped, get tick repellant and so on. Some of the ongoing upkeep you can do yourself (like clipping nails), especially if you invest in a good book of general dog care for information. But a lot of it will take you back to the vet.
Ask yourself: Am I willing to pay for the ongoing costs of keeping my dog healthy?
10. Dogs age
We tend not to think of this in the excitement of bringing a new dog home, but the fact is that dogs live much shorter lives than humans. We will still be young when our dog is in its extreme old age. If you want a dog to be a jogging partner, for example, you will have to face the fact that your dog’s ability to run with you will come to an end at some point. And old dogs, like old humans, have more arthritis and other health problems.
Also, there will come a point when your old dog just cannot carry on anymore. Making the decision to give your beloved companion a peaceful death is one of the most difficult, and most important, things dog owners have to do.
Ask yourself: Am I willing to accommodate my dog as it ages?
And last but definitely not least, getting a dog is a long-term commitment. You must be prepared to have an adult dog for 10 years or more, a puppy for 15 years! We know that sometimes life throws curveballs at us — injury, illness, allergies — but take the time to think ahead in your life and ask yourself if your plans can include a dog for 10-15 years.
Life with dogs is so wonderful, so joyful that people have never stopped wanting dogs with them. If you approach dog ownership knowing what some of the challenges are, then you are set up for a life of love and laughter for you and your dog.
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Kathy McCartney is a retired teacher who volunteers with the SCARS Public Relations Team. For four years, she has been providing presentations about SCARS and dogs at public events, and to schools, businesses and service groups. She has had six dogs (so far), including three wonderful SCARS rescues.