Thinking of getting a dog? Reality check

Article about the realities of dog ownership.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, November 2010

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FREE A5 brochure for your waiting room or shelter: Dog ownership suitability test. Please feel free to print and distribute.

Why this article?

I am prompted to write this article as yet another friend has just sent his dog back to the shelter (that’s the third one this year).

These are the reasons they respectively gave:

  • They got pregnant and didn’t like the idea of the dog’s hair all over the floor with a crawling baby.
  • They got sick of shouting ‘no’ every two seconds to the untrained teenage rescue. They also liked their living room clean, so they quickly got tired of wiping the dog’s mud prints three times a day.
  • They hadn’t realised how much time a dog would take, and simply didn’t have enough time to look after it.

None of these friends is cruel, selfish or impulsive. They just really loved dogs, so they got one. The shelter was too understaffed to do a thorough briefing and background check and ‘There you have it!': a guilt-laden family and another shelter dog.

The sad truth is: no matter how many people love dogs, only a small portion of us have the right lifestyle.

Here’s my very sobering perspective on the demands of dog ownership.

Nobody’s home most days

If the whole family is away from home for full days most days, you’re off to an iffy start. A normal 9-til-5 job plus commute keeps you away from home for ten hours straight. Not many dogs can take such a long uninterrupted period of alone time. Some can, but it’s a big bet to take.

So how to work out if you can take it on? Calculate how much time you’ll need to get the dog out a few times per day, and at least one long walk. Then count how much time you have to interact with the pup when you’re home. If a pup, count on waking up at night to let it out too. It should sum up to at least a few hours. If you don’t currently have that, what can you shift from your schedule to create the space? If you can’t, move right along and get a cockroach.

Your situation is temporary

A lot of life stages perversely seem ideal, and they are in fact the worst times to get a dog:

  • pregnancy leave;
  • between jobs;
  • during your studies;
  • staying at home due to failing health; or
  • your pet is informally tolerated at your place of work (change of boss or allergic colleague would end this).

Be self-critical and ask yourself this:

1/ Is your life going to stay this dog-friendly for the next 15 years

2/ (because point 1 is impossible to answer) Do you have a solid solution for the more likely changes?

You have young kids

First, you need to pick the dog very carefully. You need one that is:

  • very emotionally secure (i.e. not snappy); and
  • not so large that it could easily knock the kid over.

Then, you’ll need to learn to understand your dog’s body language so that you can detect early signs that the dog doesn’t like something. There are plenty of good books on dog body language.

You then need to educate your kids about appropriate dog behaviours. The blue dog project has a video game for kids that reduces bite incidents. Among other things, it teaches the kids NEVER to:

  • approach the dog when it is eating
  • approach the dog when it is chewing its bone
  • approach the dog when it is sleeping
  • startle the dog, or sneak up on it
  • handle the dog’s food
  • handle one of the dog’s toys
  • hit, pinch, kick or bite the dog
  • put their faces, or hands, or whatever, in the dog’s mouth

But even if you do the above, you can still never leave the kid alone in the same room as the pet unsupervised. Short of isolating your dog from your family’s social life, keeping critters and toddlers apart can be quite harrowing (I speak from experience). Even toilet breaks will need planning.

Also, do consider your liability when your kid invites his little friends over. Even if your kid’s an angel with dogs, nothing guarantees that his little friends are.

You like to take regular holidays

Lots of dogs aren’t suited for staying in a pension (they come back so upset you’ll never want to do it again), so you’ll need a practical solution when you’re away. Ideally, that

semi-prick ears

solution is a gem of a friend who:

  • is at home most days;
  • can let the dog out three times a day;
  • has no kids;
  • has no pet, or one that gets on with yours;
  • loves dogs;
  • is willing to look after yours; and
  • is reliable.

Know someone like that? I certainly don’t.

You’re not that keen on rainy walks

No matter how big your garden is, a dog needs to be walked outside the home for at least 20 minutes three times a day. Left to their own device in a large garden, they just lie there, bored and under-stimulated.

The walks fulfil the dog’s need for novelty and stimulation. Your dog needs to smell new smells, see new faces, hear new sounds, or it might develop obsessive barking or acral lick dermatitis (obsessively licking their paw raw).

Twenty minute walks are for low-energy breeds. You can expect much longer walks for, say, a Beagle or a German Shepherd.

Of course, some dogs are fine with way less than that, but you’re taking a pretty big chance by betting yours will be like that.

If you still think you can take it on, now imagine that it’s raining outside, you are coming up with a cold, you’re exhausted and you’ve had a horrible day. Ta-daaaaa! Time to take poochy for a walk in that drudge. Still want a dog?

You’re really not into dog training

Figure you’ll be getting a Lassie or a Rin Tin Tin? Mmmmh, think again. Unless you invest time in training your dog, good luck with these:

  • begging, begging, begging;
  • not budging from the couch;
  • not coming back when called;
  • jumping to greet you and guests. Mmmmh, muddy paws on white trousers and nice claw marks on your brand new tights ;
  • stealing from the coffee table;
  • peeing (or worse) in the house;
  • getting underfoot (especially in the kitchen!);
  • nuisance barking, whining a lot;
  • pulling your shoulder out of its socket when you go out on a walk;
  • etc., etc., etc.

So, you’ll need to find a training school in the region (positive methods only, please), and subscribe early (there are crazy waiting lists). Then, you can look forward to standing outside for one evening a week, come rain or shine (or snow, or hail), taking group training lessons (unless you want to take individual lessons, which are even more costly). Expect to be doing this for at least 10 weeks before you have enough of a handle on your dog’s training needs.

This training malarchy will set you back a few bucks (at about 10 bucks/euros/quid a lesson, times at least 10 lessons, you do the maths), nevermind the time investment.

You live in rented accommodation

An increasing number of landlords frown upon pet ownership and either charge you a higher deposit or refuse it altogether. If you are living in a rented home, or moving onto a rented home, please obtain a solid agreement, and find out what the conditions are (some demand that you pass a Canine Citizenship Test, for example. Imagine the pressure if your dog fails the exam and you have to abandon him).

You are a a clean freak

If you are a little home-proud,  try to imagine it under a thick carpet of hair, with the overall smell of dog (which I unabashedly love).

Even low-shedders (water dogs, poodle, etc.) shed somewhat. And many dogs leave huge tumble weed-like clumps of hairs all over the house, even if you vacuum daily. Think of those hairs under your cupboards, on your clothes, on your sofa, etc. I don’t mind, neither do many dog owners, but just consider it before you get a dog so you know what you’re getting into.

Real-life example: When I take my kid to the doctor’s, he remarks that there’s even hairs in his… nappies!

Your social life

I have many dog-incompatible friends (they have toddlers, they are scared, they are allergic, etc.). These no longer regularly because I do not want to park my dog in the cold corridor while I am having a good time with my friends.

I am also not welcome at my in-laws with my dog (they really hate dogs), and, as my mom has a dog, it gets pretty crowded when I bring Rodge with us. I used to bring him with me everywhere, but gradually more friends got new carpets, new children, new pets, etc. All things making it awkward to have your dog tag alone.

Consider how you feel about it, and whether you can reach a comfortable compromise.

You want a low-maintenance dog

Even “low-maintenance” breed need to be brushed regularly or there’ll be hair all over the house. Never mind the nail clipping (ideally, weekly) and bathing. And then there’s the regular worming, flea and tick treatment…

If you’re thinking of getting a dog, plan for having to spend quite a lot of time every week just taking care of these chores.

Likely issues for country dogs

It was suggested to me by a shelter worker in a countryside environment that the following where very common reasons for returning a dog:

  • kills chickens, rabbits, turkeys on their hobby farm
  • chases horses uncontrollably

Do consider the breed of dog well, and know that you shall need to invest much time in training a dog if such typical dog ‘targets’ abound where you live.

You are a little tight financially

Regular check-ups: You will need to regularly visit your vet’s for check-ups and vaccinations.

Accidents: There will also be the unavoidable bouts of mild poisoning, indigestion, sun stroke, limping, diarrhea, and various cuts and scrapes.

Old age: Sadly, one dog out of three will develop cancer, and virtually all older dogs develop cataract and/or arthritis problems. These conditions demand costly and time-consuming treatments.

Take a dog for a test drive

Before you completely give up on the idea of a dog, why not take one for a test drive? Try a few weeks in the winter for a real character test (think of those lovely walks in the blizzard).

You can approach this in a couple of ways:

  • Contact your local shelter and tell them you are interested in temporarily fostering a dog, or
  • Offer all your dog-owning friends to look after their dogs while they’re away

You’ll have a better idea about the commitment and lifestyle changes, and whether you can take it on for the next fifteen years.

Pet Care Expenses

It’s not black and white

I am deliberately painting the bleakest picture of dog ownership to prepare unsuspecting would-be adopters. The requirements I describe in the article represent an ideal and there are countless creative solutions like:

  • dog sitters
  • dog walkers
  • neighbours
  • choosing a smaller, or very calm breed
  • tolerating some misbehaviours

So, should you come short on a couple of points, by all means continue to look into it. But by the same token, please do not ‘doggedly’ (sorry!) try to fit a square peg in a round hole. If you are really uncomfortable with many of the requirements I highlight, please take a self-critical look before taking the plunge.

Don’t get me wrong, dog adoption can be wonderful: see my own account of it. And I’d much prefer someone tried, than leave the shelters full. But please enter the process knowingly.

If you pass the self-critical test, then please do some research to establish the most fitting:

  • Temperament type: Think very very very carefully before going for a high-energy dog.
  • Hair type: High maintenance? Change of allergy? Shedding intensity?
  • Size: Smaller dogs can be less expensive in terms of veterinary costs. And they are more suitable if your health is delicate. They also require less exercise. They tend to be accepted in more public places like restaurants and offices.

In conclusion, I think that if the sacrifices of having a dog outweigh the benefits, love will not conquer all and you will end up resenting your dog.  By all means adopt a dog, but please do so with your eyes open to avoid nasty surprises.

Do you have any comments?

I would love to hear from you on this subject. Particularly if you:

  • Loved the article;
  • Hated the article (!);
  • Have had to return a dog to the shelter or the breeder;
  • Are a shelter worker with some insight on adoption criteria for would-be owners, and one reasons given for returning the dog to the shelter;
  • Have adopted a dog successfully in less than ideal conditions (you work full-time, you have small kids, etc.); and
  • Have input about the commitment of dog ownership for would-be dog owners.

Further reading

10 causes of pet abandonment (Victoria Stillwell)
Dog trip down memory lane: My dogs (Canis bonus)
Dogs, my philosophical position (Canis bonus)
Shelter adoption: a success story (Canis bonus)

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