Thinking of getting a dog? Reality check

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

Free leaflet

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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  1. Posted 13 November 2010 at 20:54 | Permalink

    I like this post – and I like the kind of in-your-face reality check of getting a dog. Don’t have time for one or don’t want to put in the work one requires? Well, you may consider rethinking the idea of adopting a dog!

    However, if you’re creative, and willing to plan… I don’t think that you have to abide by certain aspects of realistic pet life. And by that I mean walks and busy schedules.

    There’s always the option of day care, a dog walker, treadmills, activities that engage the mind and body but don’t require a walk (ball, tug, puzzle toys, etc,) and so on. (Admittedly, I don’t think that means you SHOULD NEVER take your dog for a few walks a day, just that the mental stimulation doesn’t always have to be in the form of a walk.)

    ….Though I do understand the reality check of vet bills, considering mine is around a grand and climbing steadily….and it’s a pain in the butt. We all expect to get wonderful dogs who need only yearly vaccinations and the like, but find ourselves with a dog who has a lot of medical issues somehow, and … Well, poor bank account; that’s all I have to say.

    I am, however, of the belief that once you get a dog – suck it up and find a way. Find your creative solutions to problems like “don’t have time to walk the dog” and “don’t have money for vet bills.” To me, you don’t give your kids up (I don’t have any, but I’m pretty sure that’s taboo…) so why would you give another family member up?

    But that’s just my opinion.

    Nice post!!!!!

    • Posted 14 November 2010 at 10:31 | Permalink

      Thanks so much for the comment!

      Great point: ‘Suck it up and make it work‘ and ‘I wouldn’t abandon my kid’. Dogs are definitely being objectified and abandonment isn’t as inacceptable as it perhaps should be.
      I am definitely not suggesting that you let the dog go at the first inconvenience.

      As you say, there are lots and lots and lots of creative ways to make it work (pet sitters, dog walkers, etc.). So yes, it’s a question of where there’s a will, there’s a way. But, having volunteered in the shelter system, I’ve become a pragmatist on that point. I don’t think the will is necessarily there once people realise what they’ve let themselves in for.

      If your dog is clearly incompatible with your life, I don’t think you’ll be doing him or you any favours by ‘doggedly’ (excuse the pun) going through the motions for the rest of the dog’s life.

      You make a fantastic point about the walks. As Angela Stockdale points out, a lot of dogs don’t like walking in the rain, so why put it and yourself through it? Why not come up with a clever game to play indoors that will burn up that mental energy? But, as you also point out, there’s no getting over the fact that a dog needs to be walked regularly.

      On the subject of abandonment, I personally would need a very very very serious incompatibility to let my dog go. He is requiring some hefty sacrifices from me, but I see it as part of the deal. I also think that, should you find yourself in that unpleasant situation, you are responsible for finding the best possible alternative home for your dog.

      But in dog adoption as in everything: prevention is better than cure, hence the article.

  2. Posted 14 November 2010 at 20:18 | Permalink

    Agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately for all of us, the people who read our articles and the like are usually dog enthusiasts who wouldn’t dream of giving up their dog – and they already have one (or several.)

    Yeah, I live in the instant gratification capital of the world, and having been raised with (apparently) different morals than the rest…. Well, I don’t really get it. I have three jobs, dogs, and little spare time… yet, I still manage to play on the computer, play with the dog, train the dog, take classes, take the dog to cla- Well, you get the point.

    I think it is just a personality thing. I really wish people who wanted a dog would sit down and think about it!

    • Posted 14 November 2010 at 22:05 | Permalink

      Yep, it’s a tough one. On the one hand, I wish the shelters would empty themselves and all dogs went to good homes. On the other, I think people can underestimate how serious an undertaking it is, akin to parenthood in many, many, many ways.

  3. MH
    Posted 15 November 2010 at 21:32 | Permalink

    I loved this post!! I want to give it to every person I hear tell me how they want a dog as a novelty instead understanding what a committment it is!

    I took a year and a half to decide to get a dog, just for the reasons you’ve posted. It’s been 7 years now and not only do I have a dog I love, but foster additional dogs in my home!! I pretty much thought of everything you stated (with the exception of the children).

    This article is right on and I hope you plan on distributing it or making it available to shelters and rescues. People/families really need to wake up and know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. It’s a rewarding experience – I know – having a dog transformed my life.

    Please let me know if you’re going to do a widespread distribution!!

    • Posted 16 November 2010 at 16:56 | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your kind comment, MH.

      It sounds like you gave the decision a lot of thought: a year and half! Good on you! We visited lots of shelters, and had a very very very precise list of temperament requirements to decrease the chances of an incompatible match. Some of the shelter we visited were surprised, but always encouraging, about our process.

      Regarding promoting this article: I am actively promoting it in my network of dog pros, and asking them to do the same. Please do not hesitate to share links to this article with would-be dog owners.

      I have also made it into a brochure for vet’s surgeries and shelters. Do not hesitate to print and distribute it.

      And thank you again for your informed comment. The more comments like yours come along, the clearer it will be: these are not the words of an isolated pessimist, but a realistic consensus.

  4. Mike
    Posted 16 November 2010 at 23:11 | Permalink

    While I think the article is a little over the top (pets can bring significant benefits to both owners and their families), I wish there was more of this kind of talk going in the veterinary / rescue world.

    I love my dogs, but my life has to revolve around them – including a significant proportion of my income that is dedicated to their care.

    Five minutes of weakness / trying to do the right thing for that cute dog at the pound can lead to months if not years of misery for owner and pet alike. For this reason I strongly disagree with the shelters offering pet adoptions for $20 or less. It starves the shelters of funds and relegates pet ownership to an “impulse buy.” If something costs $20, how often do you think about how spending that $20 is going to impact your life? If it is $200, you are much more likely to seriously consider it and for almost everyone if is no longer an “impulse buy.” $200 is not an abnormal amount to be thinking about when it comes to veterinary care and anything serious is going to be significantly more.

    I understand, that for shelters it is a numbers game – how many pets can we get adopted. However, long term it sends a horrible message and just moves the problem onto the veterinary community who either have to give away care, treat within a very limited budget, euthanize or not treat at all.

    Owning a pet is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated as such

    • Posted 16 November 2010 at 23:12 | Permalink

      I have indeed deliberately presented the negative sides of dog ownership in this piece, in a ‘please think twice’ spirit. I am getting so many incredible benefits from my dog.

      I completely agree with your statement: ‘my life revolves around them’. They do take much investment, time and otherwise.

      I also agree that discouraging people from getting a dog (from the shelter or otherwise) is a bitter-sweet idea, as the shelters are overflowing, but really, taking a dog and returning it also burdens the system.

      You put it so well: ‘Five minutes of weakness / trying to do the right thing for that cute dog at the pound can lead to years or months of misery for owners and pet alike.’

      I am also firmly in favour of higher adoption fees in shelters, in that it will contribute to de-objectifying dogs in my opinion, and will indeed discourage impulse buying.

      I loved that campaign: a dog is for life, not for Xmas. What an effective message.

      Great point also about veterinary costs, which can easily run in the hundreds, if not thousands, should your dog hit a health snag. Even healthy dogs easily cost a couple hundred (pounds, euros, dollars) a year, absolutely.

  5. MH
    Posted 17 November 2010 at 00:03 | Permalink

    My additional comments:

    I read this article yesterday and felt it was right on. [As I stated earlier] The items you bring up were the same thoughts I had before getting my dog 7 years ago. Not only did I ask these questions, but agonized over them for a year and a half. When I finally decided that I was willing to change my life and make concessions, I brought my dog. I don’t regret it for a second. I believe this article should be distributed to every shelter, every rescue and every pet store to ensure that wanna be pet parents will give great thought to what they’re getting themselves into and the great responsibility they’re about to embark on. I hope this gets wide distribution. I already have 10 people I would like to send it to!!

    • Posted 17 November 2010 at 00:05 | Permalink

      So kind, M. I really appreciate the comment! Heartwarming!

      And thanks for the idea of a brochure!

      • Viselé Ariane
        Posted 17 November 2010 at 02:37 | Permalink

        You can never predict what will happen to you in the next fifteen years, but you must know what you you’re committing to. In good faith.

        True, a dog demands time and attention, but there is so much love in return !!!

        From my perspective, I have never wanted to put my dog or cat in a pension during my trips, and I have always found people who loved them enough to come and lodge in our house.

        This has always worked to everyone’s satisfaction.

        Thanks for this article.

      • Posted 17 November 2010 at 09:20 | Permalink

        Thank you ever so much for your comment.

        Oh you are absolutely right about not being able to predict the future. And the point I make is that there are life phases where the unknowns are greater, so you must think of alternative solutions for these in particular (temporary leave from employment, etc.).

        There is no denying how gratifying a dog can be. I adore mine and he returns it, but goodness so many concessions. I see them as part of the deal, and the article was an effort for more would-be owners to be aware of that side of things.

        I am also not entirely happy with the pension system at times, so I avoid it for my pets. But it is a huge hassle for me to find volunteers. Sounds like you’ve organised yourself beautifully!

  6. Lynde
    Posted 17 November 2010 at 03:37 | Permalink

    Well it is a very interesting article but I do not particularly like the way you have portrayed owning a dog.

    I have two myself on a very limited budget and my husband and I both work pretty much full time.

    Now I guess you could say I am an exception because I do happen to work at a training and boarding facility and my dogs come to work with me. As for training I am not sure that thirty weeks is what is required.

    I have seen clients go through our six-seven week course and come out the other side with a suitably if not wonderfully behaved dog there are just as many duds as well. Of course this all comes down to owner participation. If you aren’t willing to put in the work and listen to a trainers advice you will not get the results you want out of your training regime.

    And as far as pet hair being the main rug at our house that’s just not the case even between two dogs and two cats.

    And grooming doesn’t have to take up much time with a trained dog. Everything comes down to practice. If you do it often or everyday it becomes no big deal to your dog.

    • Posted 17 November 2010 at 09:15 | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment, Lynde.

      Unfavourable picture: I can relate to your feeling that dogs are pictured unfavourably in this article. Many others have commented on this very good point, and I have decided to add a ‘it’s not black and white’ paragraph to address the issue consequently.

      Essentially, I have deliberately put a very negative slant on dog ownership in this article as that is the subject matter (the negative aspects of dog ownership). But there are many many many great aspects of dog ownership, or I also wouldn’t be nuts about the critters myself. I guess the point I am making to would-be owners is: even if you are crazy about dogs, it’s not always a day in the park.

      Taking your dog to work: You are so lucky you get to take your dog with you. I work from home mainly, but when I have to go to the office, they no longer allow me to take him with me as some colleagues are uncomfortable with dogs.

      Training needs: Excellent point about the training course. I guess am being a bit of a perfectionist when I talk of 30 weeks. The local training school here teaches in 10-week cycles and, really, most dogs are nowhere near good citizens after the first two. But this depends enormously on important variables like handler’s skills, trainer’s skills, and dog’s abilities.

      Covered in hair: Seriously, you are not covered in hair from top to toe? My house is constantly covered, no matter what dog I own. And I brush them really frequently. Could be the climate?

      Grooming manners: Excellent point about teaching them about grooming. The nail cutting is now a breeze with my dog. He just lies flat on his belly and waits for his occasional treat. But there’s no denying it needs to happen for most dogs, and most people do not have the training interest/savvy/patience to teach them to behave well during grooming.

      Thanks again for your comment! I love the diversity of perspective you are bringing to this subject.

      • Lynde
        Posted 17 November 2010 at 15:16 | Permalink

        I must say if those are the types of dogs you’ve had I’m not surprised you had a lot of hair those are mostly very large dogs with a lot of double coat to shed. My hounds keep me vacuuming once or twice a week during shedding time but otherwise it’s not too bad. Bloodhound and a 13″ beagle are my two. Ob trained and working on our agility they love that.

      • Posted 17 November 2010 at 21:23 | Permalink

        Aaaaaargh. I loooooove bloodhounds so much! And with the beagle, you definitely have a type, lol.

        The worst shedder by far was the Maremma-Kuvasz.

  7. Nadja
    Posted 17 November 2010 at 09:23 | Permalink

    I agree that most people don’t have the perfect lifestyle to have a dog… and I would recommend fostering to anyone (if the humane society gives them an “easy” dog to start with. The humane society I work with is all volunteers and only fosters (no facility) and does quite extensive background checks on every applicant. Our local city shelter does not and that is why there are so many dogs coming back to them. As far as I have heard from the staff they agree with me on this. But they don’t have a choice. They are not allowed to screen and don’t have the time, either.

    • Posted 17 November 2010 at 09:24 | Permalink

      Essentially: firstly, thank you very much for your comment. Then…

      I really loved fostering (except for the heart-wrenching part where I had to give back the dog) and I am convinced it’s a great reality check for people.

      Agonizing over these questions of responsibility is a great great great sign. If only more people were taking it as seriously and understood quite the undertaking they are about to embark upon.

      ‘Concessions’, that’s the word. That really is what dog ownership is about (and lots of wonderful things), but ‘concessions’ is a great part.

      Our own local shelter doesn’t really welcome medium-term fostering. You could take the dogs home at the week-end (only as a volunteer), but you would not keep it home until it got adopted.

      One of shelters is quite strict, and the other is not. Being the devil’s advocate here, but I find some of the points that the strict shelter judges on a little off-the-mark, and resulting in a missed opportunity for re-homing.

      Are you familiar with the criteria for your own shelter?

      • Posted 17 November 2010 at 09:26 | Permalink

        Our humane society (not a physical shelter) puts a lot of weight into the vet reference if the people already have pets and personal references. Other than that we want to know the applicants history with pets, what they will do if they move (we have lots of students and military), how long the pet will be alone, what they are gonna feed, etc.

        The city shelter doesn’t really have any criteria. But if the staff get a real bad feeling they will ask us to pull the dog or try to find a reason to put the dog in iso.

  8. Claudine
    Posted 17 November 2010 at 14:56 | Permalink

    I don’t think anyone can predict the future enough to know whether their life circumstances are going to stay the same for the next 15 years. But what you can do is commit to doing the absolute best you possibly can for your dog throughout its lfe, as your cirumstances change due to work, family, lifestyle, whatever.
    My work requires me to spend long periods of time overseas, but my dog stays with family or friends and always has a fantastic time. I hate to think about the life she might have had, or the fun and love I would have missed out on, if I’d decided not to take her in because I was unsure what life would bring – I was a student at the time.
    Yes, being home alone for most of the day, or only having 2 walks a day, might not be ideal for your dog. But on the other hand, it might also be a hell of a lot better than living out the rest of its life in a shelter or on the streets.
    Having said that, I do think all pet owners need some kind of reliable support mechanism, be it family, friends, a professional dog sitter, or a really good kennel, that works for you and your dog, for those unavoidable times when you need help or need to be away from home.
    One option if you need to be away from home for much of the day, is to consider having two dogs, so they have one another for company and stimulation while you are out at work. Personally, I’m a firm believer that two dogs are better than one – they actually need less work, attention and time than one, and they’re likely to be a lot happier too.

    • Posted 17 November 2010 at 21:19 | Permalink

      Hi Claudine. Thanks for the comment!

      I need to mitigate my point about ‘predicting the future’, as you are not the only one to have read it that way. What am saying is: please look at the predictable changes that will occur within your dog’s lifetime, and assess whether there can be solid, realistic solutions to them (or strong support mechanisms as you well put it).

      – You’re just married. It’s likely kids will enter the equation in the next couple of years. Are you committed to keeping the dog through this? or do you have a suitable plan B.
      – You’re a student. It’s likely you’ll have to take on a full-time job when you graduate. You are also very likely to have to move house, or even city. Are you committed to keeping the dog through this, or do you have a suitable alternative home for the dog?

      I love the point you make here: ‘I hate to think about the life she might have had‘. Hail to that! I am definitely not suggesting people refrain from getting a dog if they fall short on a couple of points, but I am just saying please beware that it’s not all a walk in the park. It comes with important concessions. Dogs are way happier being walked less than 3 times a day than cooped up in a shelter.

      About pensions: unfortunately, not all of them are suitable for all dogs (ex-shelter dogs often adopt very challenging behaviours for weeks after a pension stay), and not everyone can afford it, or has access to one. All I am saying to would-be owners is: think about it. Your dog WILL need a solution when you’re travelling.

      You see the world through the eyes of a sensible, experienced dog owner. You would be surprised how many things come as a complete surprise to first time owners. In fact, I was asked to write this article by one such ‘failed’ (for want of a less judgemental word) adopter, who regretted not having known enough about the responsibilities of dog ownership.

      As a side note of caution: Two dogs can cause more problems than they can solve in cases of severe separation anxiety. If you are contemplating it, make sure you have a fall-back plan for Dog #2 if it doesn’t work out. But in the average dog-human family, I am convinced that a second dog can add loads of value, if you can take on the added expenses (and mess).

      • Posted 18 November 2010 at 18:56 | Permalink

        I’ve given this a little more thought, and a couple more points come to mind.

        I guess the main audience I have in mind with this article are impulse buyers of dogs from breeders. I think that this demographic is the main inflow of shelter dogs.

        Another point is: absolutely our adopted shelter dogs are better off with us than in the shelter, but we must hold ourselves to higher standards than simply a better life than in the shelter.

        Having said that, you come far far far above that standard, so this is just a side-note.

  9. Posted 17 November 2010 at 20:09 | Permalink

    Actually while I admire your very well-crafted article, I would say that you focus in on one demographic: young independent people. They do return animals at a higher rate in my experience, but would say that our rural shelter gets regular returns from established families, farm families, and senior citizens, all for very different reasons. At the shelter where I volunteer and sit on the board, we took returns for some entirely unrelated reasons:

    -kills chickens, rabbits, turkeys on their hobby farm
    -chases horses uncontrollably (can’t catch)
    -home foreclosure and eviction
    -owner died
    -peeing outside of the box
    -barking, neighbors complaining
    -lost job, can’t afford food

    You said lifestyle counseling is important, and I would emphatically agree. Look at all demographics and develop proactive communications for each.

    In our rural county, I believe our return rate might be less than 1 in 6. Shelter adopters growing up near or in the countryside understand animal care responsibility and are a bit less likely to be impulsive. Now I consider that demographic of shelter adopters to be somewhat different from dog and cat buyers (from breeders and pet stores), and would not link age or lifestyle. In an urban environment, it’s probably a lot different.

    Like you, I believe impulsivity is a major contributor to returns, but would add that a “shopper” mentality is also linked. A shopper decides in advance to look in shelters for small mostly white non-shed puppies, as an example, passing by the older big trained dog who might be a perfect fit for the shopper’s busy lifestyle. When waiting on customers in our shelter, I always ask them to describe personality traits in the opening conversation to refocus those shopping impulses.

    • Posted 17 November 2010 at 20:37 | Permalink

      My goodness what a great comment, Anna, both in terms of its insight and how you put it. I shall, with your permission, integrate some of your points to the article.

      In terms of impulsivity, yes, I do see it as the major contributor to failed adoptions.

      Insight from a shelter insider

      I had indeed focused on urban problems, without realising it. I shall integrate some of the return reasons you mention as further factors to consider when getting a dog.

      Many thanks in particular for the 1:6 statistic of returns. That number is quite depressing, from where I’m standing. I would be very curious to see how that varies for different countries/urban vs. rural environments/etc.

      Shopper mentality
      Shopper mentality is worth elaborating on: I think that, to a certain extent, shopper mentality is actually a desirable characteristic if the research was done thoroughly and if the criteria have real value. It decreases the chance of a drastic mismatch somewhat. But I also see the other side of the coin, whereby people have a set idea which does not necessarily consist in the only ideal companion for them, and overlook many equally suitable dogs on that basis.

      The ‘shopper’ mentality also suggests that dogs are akin to merchandise, a perspective which also greatly contributes to failed adoptions, IMO.

      I would also like to elaborate on dogs which are marketed as ‘no-shed’. I would love to see these referred to as ‘low-shed’, to manage expectations better. The number of people who literally imagine that there shall be no shed hair with these breed is still surprisingly high.

      Many thanks for the insight you give us in shelter choice management for would-be adopters. Very, very, very interesting stuff indeed.

  10. Posted 18 November 2010 at 18:58 | Permalink

    I would like to emphasize that I believe smaller dogs usually require a bit less expense and exercise, so may be a better choice for busy people. Also, at least here in the United States, many doggy daycares and petsitters abound and are doing very well despite the economy. These services are a great option for busy owners and really help dogs get their needed exercise. I try to take my GSD for a walk at least once a week but don’t always get to do so. He has a yard, but doesn’t run around too much. He does participate in nuisance barking, but I am able to keep it somewhat under control. I tolerate it because I love him like he was my child. I guess what I am saying is that what you describe in the article is an ideal situation in which one would have a well-exercised, well-adjusted dog, but dogs can still be fairly happy (and owners too) without quite as much work as it sounds like in your article.
    I agree that not enough people are aware of the costs associated with pet ownership. I am not sure what the solution is. If less people adopt because they cannot afford it, that results in more euthanasia. It seems as if these poor animals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It just plain stinks for them.

    • Posted 18 November 2010 at 19:00 | Permalink

      “I would like to emphasize that I believe smaller dogs usually require a bit less expense and exercise, so may be a better choice for busy people.” Good point! I’ll mention the choice of breed/size.

      “Also, at least here in the United States, many doggy daycares and petsitters abound and are doing very well despite the economy. These services are a great option for busy owners and really help dogs get their needed exercise.” Thanks for that. I have beefed up the ‘it’s not black and white’ section with these specific solutions, to give a more balanced account.

      “I try to take my GSD for a walk at least once a week but don’t always get to do so. He has a yard, but doesn’t run around too much. He does participate in nuisance barking, but I am able to keep it somewhat under control. I tolerate it because I love him like he was my child.” I can totally relate. My parents’ anatolian shep is (obviously) extremely large and was never leash-trained. So my parents are unable to walk him and he never (really, never) walks outside their (large) garden.

      He has become a compulsive nuisance barker and has developed acral derma. They would never dream of giving him up, despite the neighbours’ growing protests, but they are now telling me that they regret their choice of breed. As they are not that much into training, perhaps a little more research would have steered them towards a more manageable size. But I am taking the very scenic route to the point: indeed, if you are committed to your dog, as many of us are, there’s very little that would lead us to abandonning them.

      “I guess what I am saying is that what you describe in the article is an ideal situation in which one would have a well-exercised, well-adjusted dog, but dogs can still be fairly happy (and owners too) without quite as much work as it sounds like in your article.” Absolutely agreed, I have added a ‘It’s not black and white’ section to redress the balance somewhat, as your comments are in consensus with many others.

      “I agree that not enough people are aware of the costs associated with pet ownership. I am not sure what the solution is. If less people adopt because they cannot afford it, that results in more euthanasia. It seems as if these poor animals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It just plain stinks for them.” They are, aren’t they (stuck…). Volunteering at the shelter is at once depressing and rewarding. But I can’t help but thinking that if less people impulse-purchased a dog, we would be in less of a mess.

      Goodness, sorry, Elisa. I went and wrote an essay again. Aaaaah, brevity…. Not my strongest suit.

  11. GM @ vet surgery
    Posted 18 November 2010 at 19:10 | Permalink

    (comment originally made in LinkedIn)

    These are all great comments. I really believe that there needs to be some sort of oversight of the rescues and shelters as well. We see many cases of pets adopted for both small and large “Donations” that have problems beyond “not being able to afford it”. Many of these places do not have the education/experience/or ability to properly place many of these pets with the appropriate owners. They try their best, but most are fighting a losign battle and are forced to make decesions destined for failure because of cost.

    I’m not trying to say it is all like this, but it is certainly part of the problem. As much as a person needs to research the cost, change of lifestyle, etc.. of owning a pet, there should be a bit more responsibility on those adopting these out.

    • Posted 18 November 2010 at 19:12 | Permalink

      I am pondering now whether more scrutiny on the part of shelters could be counter-productive. If it tries to do it on the basis of set criteria, I think it’ll deliver many false (people would be flagged as unsuitable when they can make it work).

      As things stand and with minimal scrutiny, someone told me that it was a ratio of 1:6 returns in their shelters. I guess it’s a bet. If one dog our of six gets returned, then at least five of them found a home? This article and all your comments got me thinking about this even more. Thank you all for the thought-provoking points you make.

      It’s a real conundrum, I have to say. Between being more strict at the time of adoption, or having more people adopting dogs, but returning them.

      But essentially, I’m with you on that one: many failed adoptions could be avoided if an intelligent and informed decision was made on a case-by-case basis at the shelter. Given how overworked shelter staff tends to be, I guess this remains in the realms of theory, sadly.

  12. GM @ vet surgery
    Posted 18 November 2010 at 19:11 | Permalink

    (comment originally made in LinkedIn)
    I think that there is a duel responsibility between the adoptors and shelters. The point of someone thinking with their heart and making a quick choice to adopt without understanding what they are getting into is a problem. I understand your thoughts on the “oversight” causing problems. I look at it this way. I have worked in this industry for over 10 years, but does this mean I can do a physical exam or surgery? In the same regards, someone who has owned pets all their life does not qualify them to evaluate a good owner or animal to be adopted.

    Some oversight and some training for those on the front lines maybe able to reduce the mistakes all around. Just a thought…

    • Posted 18 November 2010 at 19:12 | Permalink

      And another really insightful angle you are bringing to this, S. Experience does not substitute training.

  13. Posted 22 November 2010 at 17:38 | Permalink

    I think think the article is great understanding you are trying to give people a reality check a get them to think before leaping. I am a dog trainer and also foster for a small rescue organization and I think fostering a dog to try it out is a great idea. In fact, I just recommended this to a friend whos daughter wants a dog.
    I totally understand your frustration with people getting pets on impulse. This is one of the many reasons why I have a problem with pets being sold in pet stores. We find these dogs generally have a lot more health problems, house training issues and represent a huge percentage of people who decide they don’t want the dog any more. So often buying this way is an impulse because those puppies are just so cute.
    The kid issue is the other biggy. If people plan to have kids, they really need to consider that. I have a friend who had a great dog, but when they had their daughter and they had less time the dog began escaping from the yard. They decided to rehome it as it was too big of a hassle. The dog went from being the kid to being alone in a yard. I just can’t understand, are they going to get rid of the kid if it becomes too big of a problem as well. I think not because she’s part of the family and so should be the pets. I understand sometimes circumstances arise, but dogs are so much more loyal than other pets, they really are mans best friend. I just don’t understand how people can abandon family members.

    • Posted 23 November 2010 at 20:51 | Permalink

      Hi Trina. Thanks for your comment!

      I think it was JJ who made this point in one of her comments: ‘you’re preaching to the choir’. I totally hear you about ‘I don’t understand how people can abandon family members‘, but I think many people do not get so attached to dogs as we do. Many people would have abandoned their dog a million times if they had to put up with the concessions I have to make for him. And it is in many ways like a child: sure there are chores, but even they are kind of fun.

      I would love for you to pass on the link to your friend’s daughter. She can check this brochure out if she wants the shorter, digest version. I have the sad reflex now, when I hear of a friend talking of getting a dog of thinking “Please don’t…”. Even the ones who think they’ve done their research. I think I am most concerned with first time owners not realising the commitment, but I guess there needs to be a first time, right?

      “…from being a kid to being alone in the yard.” If I got a dollar for every time I’ve heard that story… It is so sadly typical. I think Ian Dunbar talked about it in one of his tech talks, actually. Very good point (the gradual decline, leading to eventual abandonment).

      “… because puppies are just so cute”. It’s a double-edged blade, isn’t it? In a sense, dogs would do themselves a favour by being less adorable when they’re young.

      Aaaaah, the kid issue. I am starting to feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite, so I’ll come clean again on this point. Check out my adoption story: But this allows me to stress two points, I guess:
      1/ You don’t have to be 100% good match to have a dog. You just need to have a very very very good match and some excellent contingency plans.
      2/ Back to the ‘preaching to the choir’. There is no way I would abandon a dog lightly. No way. So I knew that it would take a very very very serious problem for me to abandon my dog. The biggest one being: ‘what if my kid turns out to be allergic’. That had me awake at night, believe me. Thankfully, kid has no problem whatsoever. (touch wood).

  14. Posted 19 December 2010 at 22:00 | Permalink

    Good article addressing a problem with a surprising amount of complexity.

    I’m very fortunate to volunteer at the Warwick Animal Shelter where the director addresses budget and staffing constraints by welcoming volunteers who do enough of the day to day cleaning, feeding, walking and playing with the dogs to free the staff to run background checks, vet individuals interested in adoption as well on follow through on mandatory spay/neuter.

    It’s not a perfect system but the mere willingness of the director to manage an environment composed of compassionate staff and volunteers makes all the difference in the world.

    The model nationwide remains the “Meet You Match” program developed for the Murfin Animal Care Campus in Wichita, KS. and since adopted by the ASPCA as well as other shelters around the country. Both the dogs and the potential adopters are evaluated and paired together to cut down on, I’ll call it “recidivism”.

    • Posted 19 December 2010 at 22:02 | Permalink

      Thanks, Jim. I am following this lead with the humane society, now, thanks for the tip. Hopefully it’ll let me find out more about “Meet your match”.

  15. Tammy
    Posted 1 October 2017 at 16:07 | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this and putting it on the web. I have been considering getting a dog for several months and while I vaguely knew of the seriousness of doing so, this article really spells it out. I know you wrote this article about 7 years ago, but all information contained in it is still just as relevant as it was on the day you published it. I’m going to save this page as a favorite, one to return to as I continue to decide whether dog ownership is truly for me. I appreciate you for sharing these realities.

    • Posted 4 November 2017 at 09:05 | Permalink

      Hi Tammy. Thank you very much for your kind words. I am also impressed that you are ready to postpone having a dog because you want what’s best for them. The way we got around it was by fostering one for a few months, with the option of returning him quickly if it didn’t work out. You might want to look into that?

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