Twice in my life I've owned a dog. Both times, I was so enamored with the dog, all cooped up at the shelter and ready to escape to a loving home, that I pushed aside any serious concerns about the responsibility I was taking on. I figured I'd deal with problems when they happened. For the most part, that worked. After all, you can't worry too much about what hasn't happened. But you can be prepared.
Both of my dogs have given me very different opportunities to learn what truly goes into owning a living, breathing, eating, pooping, thinking, chewing, high-energy, accident-prone, vaccination-needing, attention-seeking being. And while nothing could make me regret bringing home either of my wonderful dogs — no matter how high the vet bills or how frustrating the training — I do wish that I'd have gone into the adoptions with eyes wide open. (And maybe a little more padding in my savings account.)
While I only have hindsight, it is 20-20. I hope that it can help someone else prepare a little more for what they're getting into when they sign up for a dog. Here are the seven things I wish someone would have said to me before I signed the adoption papers, just so I knew exactly what I was getting into.
1. You're going to spend a lot of money. A. Lot. Of. Money.
Whatever you think you're going to spend on a dog, triple it. Better yet, quadruple it. And depending on your dog, double whatever the sum of your quadrupling.
Americans spent $55.7 billion on pets in 2013. We spent an estimated $58.5 billion in 2014. In fact, every year, we spend billions more than the previous year on our non-human family members. Why? Because we care.
The bulk of what we spend goes toward better food. These days it's tough to trust just any old can of ground-up goodness-knows-what. Is it nutritious? Is it safe? Is it ethical? More and more pet stores are offering better options like dehydrated or frozen raw food made with organic ingredients. Honest Kitchen, Grandma Lucy's, Small Batch, Orijen, Stella & Chewy's, Primal, Natural Balance and other brands have come onto the market to offer dog owners only the best for their pups. And they aren't cheap.
Beyond the absolute basics of food, there are the basics of annual vaccinations and licensing your dog with your city. There's also microchipping your dog and getting him registered in search databases, which is a huge step in ensuring a lost dog can be returned to his or her owner.
Then there are the vet visits — not predictable in when they'll happen or why, but predictable in that they will indeed happen. Some dogs are prone to skin infections or allergies or ear infections. Young dogs run the risk of injuring themselves in overly rambunctious play. Old dogs run the risk of developing arthritis, or the scary c-word, cancer. And there's always the expense of monthly flea, tick and heartworm medications. Some pet owners opt to get pet insurance with monthly payments in case of an emergency or as a way to handle expensive prescriptions if the dog has special health needs, so there's another monthly cost to consider.
Then there is the money you don't spend on your dog but you spend because of your dog. Replacing furniture or carpets, for instance. I've had to get a toilet repaired (ball got stuck in it) and a window replaced (ball went through it) and a new fence installed (ball went under it so dog went through it).
There are the necessities like baths and grooming and nail trimming. And there's the fun stuff like collars, tags, treats, beds, crates, harnesses, leashes, sweaters or boots if you live in cold climates, cooling blankets if you live in hot climates, bully sticks and marrow bones, chew toys and stuffed toys, replacement toys, replacement toys for the replacement toys, Chuck-Its and tennis balls, training treat pouches, poop bags ... I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.
And there's the cost of classes. An obedience class or two is a must. But there's also private trainers to get one-on-one help. Special classes for dogs with particular issues like reactivity or shyness. There are canine good citizen classes or agility classes or rally classes or scent work classes.
What if you travel a lot and need to board your dog with someone while you're away? Or what if you work all day and need to hire a dog walker or enroll your pooch in doggy daycare so they get enough exercise and don't tear up everything in the house?
So when I say double what you quadrupled, I'm not exaggerating. You're not paying for an adoption fee, a collar, leash and some food — oh, not by a long shot. Still, all this doesn't add up to not getting a dog. It just means you'll need to do some serious thinking about budgeting for and making decisions about what you're going to spend money on and preparing for that fact.
2. Any extra mental and physical energy you have? Yep, that goes to the dog.
Now that your wallet is empty, it's time to start emptying your mental and physical energy reserves. I joke, but really, it is important to understand just how much energy goes into a dog. When you come home tired at the end of a long work day, the exuberance with which your dog greets you is absolutely wonderful. And now the dog's stored-up energy needs to be burned off for sanity's sake.
For the most part, any dog of any size or age needs at least an hour-long walk every day, bare minimum. Dogs with more energy need more walking (or better yet, running and fetching and exploring new hiking trails or park paths). If you're lucky, you may have other people around you who can take on some of that walking. But if you're not, that means as soon as you walk in the door at the end of the day, you need to turn around and walk out of it, dog in tow.
It's not just the walking and games of fetch that are necessary. Training is also a must, and that means investing mental energy in your dog — providing the patience and guidance needed to help your dog learn how to be a stable, confident, well-behaved best friend. Depending on your dog, this could be a piece of cake. Maybe your dog is already super well-adjusted and friendly with self-imposed good manners. But more likely, your dog may have some things to work on, such as recall when off leash, a solid sit-stay, polite manners when greeting other dogs, walking on a loose leash, and so on. Maybe your dog is fearful, reactive, shy, or dog-aggressive and you need to invest even more work in figuring out how to make the world a less scary, more navigable place for your dog. No matter who your dog is, you're likely to have some things that you have to invest mental energy into working on every day, on top of the physical energy that goes into making sure the dog is exercised.
3. Training happens every single day. There's no finish line.
Let's talk a little more about training. I wish I'd have been told that training is an every-day-for-life thing. When I adopted my first dog, I thought you just go to obedience class, teach your dogs some obedience, and then you have an obedient dog. I laugh at myself every time I think back on that naiveté.
Dogs are not static beings. They have their own unique personalities and their brains are always churning, always coming up with new ways to get what they want whether that's to get to the park faster, or to sneak the roast chicken left unattended on the counter, or to cuddle on the no-dogs-allowed couch. Dogs have impulses, temptations, fears, triggers, bouts of energetic silliness or thoughtlessness just like any other being. To help a thinking being navigate the world requires active training, every day, for life.
Sometimes a dog that is trained to sit before being allowed to go out the door will be too excited to remember this requirement and, if the dog gets away with it a couple times, he will start to test the limits of the rule. Thus, training begins again. Sometimes a dog will develop a new fear of, say, trash cans, and new training has to begin for how to help the dog walk calmly past trash cans. Maybe your family is bringing home a second dog. That means your first dog will need new training on how to deal with having a second dog around at meal times, on walks, during cuddle sessions, sharing toys or in myriad other ways.
Life is always offering new challenges, and this fact along with your dog being a thinking being means that training is a non-stop, life-long process.
4. Are you ready for a little family drama?
Unless you live alone, there are probably going to be some things that pop up that require family meetings, or maybe even family therapy. Who is in charge of what aspects of caring for the dog — and who slacks in their role — may be an issue. Family members who let the dog get away with something another family member is trying to train the dog not to do may be an issue. Aspects of the dog's personality that one family member finds endearing while another family member loathes may be an issue. Perhaps a new person joins the family, which changes the dynamics and new problems need to be addressed.
A personal example comes from my very vocal dog. He likes to tell us everything he's thinking, when he thinks it. For me, the barking is kind of annoying but I know he's just telling me what's on his mind and I can (mostly) get him to stop. To my wife, on the other hand, his barking is nails on a chalkboard. One or two barks makes her tense, but when he goes into one of his frenzies, she's ready to pack up and leave. We've had many discussions about how to handle one of his freak-outs, who takes the lead role in getting him to settle down when he goes into a flurry and, importantly, how to be supportive of the other person — me being understanding that his barks are extraordinarily grating for my wife and so taking no-bark training seriously, and my wife learning to take some deep breaths while letting me try to mellow him out, and not adding to the commotion by yelling at him to knock it off. It was important to recognize that this was an actual stressor in our relationship with one another, and something we needed to address on a human level, let alone on a training level with the dog.
You and your significant other or family members may go into owning a dog all rosy-cheeked and starry-eyed, but there are real issues that are almost guaranteed to come up. And the hard part is they're almost impossible to predict until they become an issue. It is important for the whole family to be on the same page. Not only does that mean deciding what rules and roles are going to be put in place before the dog comes home, but also being open to talking about problems as a family when they come up.
Photo: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock
5. Say goodbye to spontaneous travel. Or late nights for that matter.
Having a dog is a bit like having a kid in that unplanned weekend-getaways or random all-nighters aren't really in the cards. Now that you have a dog, even a late-night dinner date — let alone the basic camping trip — takes more planning. Spontaneity is tough when you have an animal 100 percent dependent on you.
For one thing, dogs need to potty. You can't leave straight from work to happy hour, then dinner, then night caps or dancing until 2 a.m. If you do, you may find a little unpleasant present or two waiting for you on the rug. Not to mention a lonely dog that has been cooped up all night, uncomfortable and confused.
Another issue is travel. If you're planning a weekend getaway, it means either finding a pet-sitter you trust, or a hotel that takes dogs. Even for camping, you'll need to check that the campground allows dogs and what the rules are. Road-tripping it? Or flying? How are you getting Fido safely from point A to point B?
You're either going to travel less, invest part of your travel budget in boarding or pet sitting, or become an expert in pet-friendly accommodations on the road. And you're definitely going to think about your dog's needs before you say yes to spontaneous weeknight or weekend plans.
6. Your new dog is not going to be like your old dog.
My first dog was basically a piece of cake. He was the kind of dog you want to get when you're learning how to be a dog owner, because he just rolled with everything. He was a happy Labrador retriever mix who was basically bomb-proof. His biggest faults were hating the mailman with a passion and eating garden hoses. He got along with other dogs, liked people, liked to play but had an easy-going energy level. Sometimes he'd escape from the backyard, but we'd find him waiting for us on the front porch when we got home. I thought that's what all my dogs would be like. If I put in a little bit of work and love, I'd get an even-keeled dog. I was dead wrong.
The thing is, what kind of dog you have isn't entirely dependent on you. What kind of dog you have is mostly dependent on the dog. My second dog is not and will never be even-keeled, no matter how much work and love I might put into him. He is who he is, and my life with him has been 180-degrees different than my life with my Labrador mutt. It's utterly amazing, don't get me wrong. But it's utterly different.
Even if you adopt the same breed of dog — even if you buy your second dog from the very same breeder as your first — you're going to have a wildly different experience. No two dogs are alike, ever. And while you may think you know what you're doing as a dog owner, your second dog may very well take you to new levels of knowledge about dog cognition, of complexity in human-dog dynamics, of frustration or joy in training.
Perhaps one of the worst things you can do when bringing home a dog is to have expectations that this dog will be the same a — or even similar to — your previous dog. Don't set yourself up for disappointment or frustration. Set yourself up for joy and surprise by letting your new dog reveal himself for who he is as you get to know each other.
7. It's not going to be what you expect.
In fact, while we're talking about expectations, let's go ahead and toss all of them out the window. If you're getting a dog because you have certain expectations for what your life will be like with one, just know this: It probably won't be what you thought it'd be. It'll be just as great, but different.
Your dog will probably be more work than you expect, probably more frustrating than you expect, probably more dirty, smelly, expensive and time-consuming than you expect. But your life with your dog will probably be more fun and more rewarding than you expect as well. You'll probably become more obsessed than you expect, post more photos to Instagram than you expect, and buy more matching collar-leash combinations than you expect.
Whatever you think owning a dog will be like, it won't be quite like that. Perhaps fairly close, perhaps wildly different, but definitely not quite like what you expect.
One thing about owning a dog is universally true: if you do it right, and go into it with your eyes wide open, bringing a dog into your life is going to be one of the best things you ever do.
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