Carly Loyer Davis, CPDT
It’s more than mildly ridiculous that a dog trainer would not have a dog. Unfortunately, living in a Seattle apartment is very rarely conducive to dog ownership/parentage. Similarly, college, working multiple jobs, and driving a lot don’t lend themselves to being an ideal dog owner. As a result, this dog trainer has had to make do with adoring client dogs and spoiling the bejeezus out of her parents’ two dogs, Hobbes and Gracie (really, they’re family dogs, so they feel like ‘my’ dogs even though I don’t get to live with them on a day-to-day basis). However, I am finally in an apartment that allows dogs and has a convenient place to exercise and enjoy them, and I finally have a job that is flexible enough to allow me to provide sufficient attention for a dog, and I have a husband who is ready and willing to help care for and spoil a dog. What does that mean? It’s time to go dog shopping!
As soon as I realized that we were finally going to be able to bring a fuzzy animal to live with us on a permanent basis, I was ecstatic, but also very, very nervous. As a dog trainer and someone who’s worked with plenty of “problem dogs”, I’ve seen my fair share of dog-owner pairs that are simply not the right fit, whether because of the dog’s age, the breed, the owner’s age, or lifestyles and events that hadn’t been taken into consideration when the owner decided to adopt a dog. Part of the reason that it’s taken me so long to make the firm decision that it’s time to get a dog is my intense paranoia about adopting the wrong dog and not being able to provide for it properly. Now, I’m sure that not all families preparing to bring a dog into their homes over-think the process as I much as I currently am (I’m sure of this because I’ve met many dogs who seem to have simply “appeared” in a home without much thought process at all). However, I also believe that there are plenty of potential adopters that are similarly concerned about getting the right dog for their home. Here are some important questions to ask yourself before you decide to adopt a dog, and some recommendations once you’ve answered them honestly.
1. How much time do you have to invest in a dog? Ask this as a general question, once your new dog has adjusted to your home. Some breeds and individual dogs will require less time from an owner once they get settled in- older dogs usually don’t need as much physical exercise as a puppy or adolescent dog, and senior dogs will probably be happier to just “hang out” with you while you watch TV or read a book to unwind at the end of the day than a juvenile dog will be. If you don’t have the time to spend running or walking or playing with a high-drive dog like a herding or working breed, don’t adopt one! Australian shepherds, Border collies, hunting dogs, etc… all of these dogs can be expected to need at least two intensive exercise sessions each day, running, playing fetch, or a dog park visit (if appropriate).
2. How much energy do you want to invest in a dog? I think this is a huge question that many people don’t really consider. I used to think that I wanted a high-drive, creepy-smart dog. Then I trained a few of them and talked to other trainers and owners who had more extensive experience with them, and realized how much energy it takes to own them. Puppies are also energy-intensive. A rescue dog with some basic training from the rescue staff or from its previous owners probably won’t require the 100% supervision for months on end that a tiny puppy will. A puppy may require three or four hours (or more) of attention daily focused solely on the dog and their needs. As they turn into adolescents, new behavior and obedience challenges may appear, or old ones return. Even if you have the time available, will you feel burdened or resentful that your dog requires so much focused attention after you’ve had a hard day at work? Or will the time you spend exercising and training the dog be as cathartic to you as it is to the furry one?
3. What are your behavioral deal-breakers? I’m a dog trainer, and even I have some behaviors that, in my search for my own dog, I know that I will not be able to manage or fix. One of the most common (and one that, because of my work schedule, I am not prepared to modify) is separation anxiety. In an apartment building, incessant barking as a result of anxiety is a serious problem, not to mention the potential for destruction. How about potty training? Resource guarding? Dog aggression? Stranger aggression? Carefully consider your own lifestyle and the things you’d like to do with your dog. If your dog must be able to go on long walks with you in the city, you probably don’t want to adopt a leash reactive pup unless you’ve got a trainer in mind to help you with the behavior modification. Also, think carefully about resource guarding, especially in conjunction with question #7.
4. Grooming! If you are a fastidious housekeeper and are not going to enjoy having dog hair everywhere, huskies are probably not for you. How often do you want to brush your dog? Never? Once a day? I, personally, am looking for a low-maintenance kind of dog, and don’t mind the dog hair much- I’m not looking for a poodle, which won’t shed much but will need lots of brushing and regular trims to avoid matting. Keep in mind that most dogs billed as “no shed” dogs will lose some fur at some point, and generally cost more for grooming upkeep unless you’re confident enough to do your own clipping/shaving/trimming.
5. Do you want a cuddle bug or a dog that’s more independent? I want a cuddle bug, and my husband wants a cuddle bug. Some people might call these dogs clingy, but I crave the touchy-feely-scritchy contact with dogs, and would be perfectly happy with a pup that comes up and puts a paw or their head in my lap when they need attention. Some dogs I’ve worked with would rather you throw the darn ball right now lady than pet them, and that would be hard for my little ego to swallow in my own pet. Some people would rather not have the dog hair layer on their clothes that I’ve grown accustomed to, and might want to avoid the “Velcro dogs.” Again, talk to the rescue group or breeder and tell them what you’re looking for, since they’ll be able to point you toward available dogs that may be more or less needy/clingy/cuddly.
6. Other pets? I wrote a previous post about my Quaker, Kiwi. I have the view that she came first, and newcomers to the household are going to have to learn to live with her (my husband included). If you have or think you’ll want to have other animals, consider how much time and energy you want to put into training them to coexist happily, or whether you’re willing to manage the situation to keep everyone safe. Nick and I “test drove” a marvelous German Shorthair Pointer mix named Rocket whom we thought was fabulous. He didn’t destroy my car on the way to our house, he didn’t chew on anything in the apartment, he was happy to see us but didn’t jump on either of us, was amazingly easy to call away from distractions (including an intense play session with another dog) and was generally just a wonderful, happy lover-boy. But when we cautiously introduced Kiwi (I was holding her body with both hands, he was on a harness and leash, and believe me, she was safe), he got a light in his eyes that neither of us was completely comfortable with, could not be called off, and air-snapped in her general direction twice. We knew at that moment he was not the dog for us. We could have managed the situation- Kiwi stays in the bedroom when he’s not in the crate, we make sure he’s tired to the bone, and we teach an amazing recall and “leave it.” But that’s not where I want to focus my energy, and this amazing dog would probably be much happier in a home that wouldn’t provide such a tasty temptation.
7. The future. Countless dogs are brought to shelters and rescues each year as a result of predictable life changes. If you’re planning to get married, even if it’s in the distant future, don’t get a dog that will be afraid of or aggressive towards your spouse unless you’re prepared to work with both parties on being more comfortable around each other. If a dog is going to be afraid of something it’s very often men (or men in baseball caps or hoodies). Sorry, guys, you’re just scary with your broad shoulders and deep voices. Also consider the possibility of human babies or grandbabies in the lifetime of the dog. If you don’t have any yet, might you want some in the future? Are you willing to socialize a dog to kids and all of the strange baby equipment and noises that they’ll have to put up with when the furless children appear? If your dog guards toys or food bowls, will you be willing and able to manage the situation to avoid putting children at risk of a bite? How about moving? What are the chances that you’ll have to downsize or move long distance during your dog’s life? If you have a working breed, it will take more energy to keep your dog exercised in the city than it will in a rural setting with a backyard, so it’s a good idea to consider how likely it is that you will be changing your home environment drastically. Many dogs don’t transition well to an apartment.
This list may seem fairly obsessive and it probably is. But the answers to all of these questions can guide you toward the right dog (or maybe steer you towards the right species if a dog isn’t going to fit your lifestyle). Ultimately, it’s not just about being able to take care of a dog, but being able to enjoy taking care of it. Regardless of the pup, some things will never be fun (I don’t think anyone could make a good case for the joys of poop scooping), some things will be a blast (nothing better to me than a huge puppy smile and full-body wag when I come home), and some things will be tolerable (taking the final potty walk of the night in the Seattle mizzle). Which aspects fall into each category depend on the person and the dog, and to ensure that you end up with a dog that you will not simply live with, but will be enriched by, spend some time before you go dog hunting to decide which traits are most important to you. Better yet, talk to other owners, trainers, groomers, rescue groups and shelter workers. Discuss your expectations for a fuzzy family member, potential life changes, and maybe even hire someone to help you select the right dog for your family. Be realistic, take your time, and expect from the outset to take some kind of positive reinforcement training class with your new dog, even if he’s already a rock star at obedience.