So you think you want a dog? One with a wagging tail? Or perhaps, one with no tail at all? Before adding a dog to your family, you may want to ask yourself some tough questions and give careful thought to what it means to be a responsible dog owner. I know I had to.
When I was a little kid, my family was not animal-oriented, but I was obsessed with animals, especially dogs. I was annoyingly persistent in asking my parents for a dog, and they gave me every reason why we should not get one. It took almost one year, but I convinced them that I could be responsible for an animal. On my 11th birthday, I finally got my dog!
At the time, I thought my parents were annoying, but as a veterinarian, I have often thought that more people should carefully consider all of the responsibilities that come with pet ownership.
Whether you are buying a cat, a dog, or a goldfish, bringing another living creature into your life requires commitment. If you are considering adding a dog to your life, there are many questions to consider, including:
- Do I have the time to train, care for, and engage with a dog?
- Is my lifestyle conducive to being responsible for a dog?
- Is my home appropriate for the type of dog I want?
- Do I have the time and space to exercise the dog?
- Is someone available at regular times every day to feed and walk the dog?
- Do I have the time to provide mental stimulation for the dog, at a level that is appropriate for its breed and personality?
- Do I have the financial resources to cover expenses related to having a dog? Expenses can include:
What Type of Dog Fits Me?
Once you decide to acquire a dog, careful consideration should also be given to the type or breed of dog you would like to add to your family. Different dog breeds have a variety of personalities, energy levels, and physical characteristics. Responsibilities such as coat maintenance and satisfying energy levels can become frustrating if they are incompatible with your lifestyle.
For example, if you are not very active, live in a small apartment, or are bothered by dog hair on your clothes or furniture, then lively, shedding dogs such as Siberian Huskies or Border Collies are probably not a good fit for you. If you have small children or plan on having children in the near future, small dogs may not be a good choice, as they can be easily frightened by or injured by active young children.
Purebred dogs are ideal for first-time owners, as they are dependable in their physical and personality characteristics. Social media and traditional media have helped popularize certain dog breeds, such as Huskies and Shiba Inu. However, when people get these dogs, they sometimes find that they are not prepared for the high energy level and coat maintenance required of a Husky, or the reserved nature of a Shiba Inu.
For much of my life, I bred Afghan Hounds. I love the breed, but I know it’s not for everyone. Whenever I sold a puppy, I made sure that the prospective owner understood the characteristics of the breed and had proper expectations. Someone looking for the endless devotion of a Golden Retriever might not want the refinement and aloofness of an Afghan Hound.
Too often, when personality traits and physical characteristics don’t match the owner’s expectations, the dog ends up in a shelter, homeless and facing the prospect of euthanasia. Re-homing an adult dog can be very difficult, and as a consequence, each year hundreds of thousands of shelter dogs are euthanized.
Responsible Dog Ownership
Once you decide to add a dog to your life, it’s important to find a responsible breeder or shelter. They will often make sure that you are able to care for your dog and that the dog you are interested in will fit your lifestyle.
Acquiring your dog from a responsible breeder allows you to have a better understanding of his genetic characteristics, including personality, coat, and potential health issues. Responsible breeders follow the guidelines of the Canine Health Information Center and conduct recommended genetic testing of the parents to reduce the risk of inherited diseases.
Once you bring your dog home, you will need to incorporate him into you life and make time to care for him. The work involves a lifelong commitment to your dog and, in return, you receive a lifetime of love and devotion from your dog. Responsible dog owners should:
- Microchip your dog and give him a collar that fits, with a tag that has his name, your address, and your phone number. The AKC’s Reunite program can help reunite you with your dog should you become separated.
- Provide a healthy, well balanced diet in consultation with your breeder or shelter and veterinarian. No table scraps! Your veterinarian can provide guidance to help you keep your dog at an appropriate weight.
- Make certain that your dog receives adequate training. Many pet stores and some veterinary offices provide classes. Training can help you and your dog know what to expect, and help your dog know how to behave.
- Exercise your dog daily. The level of physical exercise needed varies by breed, but all dogs need some exercise. Lack of exercise can lead to boredom, behavior problems and weight gain.
- Provide mental stimulation for your dog. Dogs like to have a job. Toys, puzzles, and play are great ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated and out of trouble.
- Groom your dog regularly. Some dogs require monthly grooming. Others need grooming less often. All dogs should be brushed and have their nails trimmed regularly and be given a bath at least a couple of times a year.
- Schedule annual checkups for your dog, and keep his vaccinations up-to-date. Senior dogs (older than seven years of age), or dogs with health problems, should see their veterinarian every six months. Your veterinarian can help you determine which vaccinations are best for your pet based on his health, lifestyle, and living conditions. All dogs are required by law to be vaccinated against rabies.
- Make certain that your dog is not a nuisance to others. Always keep him on a leash and under the control of a responsible adult when outside of your yard. Pick up your dog’s waste. Minimize his barking.
Medical Care and Costs
Although lifespan can vary by breed and size, dogs generally live 8-15 years. While some breeds may have a genetic predisposition to some health issues, as a veterinarian in a busy urban emergency veterinary hospital, I’ve seen first-hand that all dogs get sick, whether purebred or mixed-breed. Many dogs require emergency or specialty medical care during their lives.
Costs associated with dog illness and emergency care can be a challenge to any budget. Veterinarians provide high-quality medical care and maintain significant overhead in order to care for your dog. For more than 30 years, I’ve worked as a veterinarian in a busy emergency hospital that treats thousands of dogs each year. During my career, I have witnessed a significant shift in veterinary medicine. It now parallels human health with options for care never before imagined. With those options comes a significant price tag.
Veterinary specialists, such as cardiologists, dermatologists, neurologists, oncologists, etc., can provide treatment that was not available in the past. Their tools include MRI, CT scan, ultrasound, radiation, and rehabilitation facilities. Cancer, for example, used to be a death sentence for a dog. Today, a dog can receive chemotherapy and/or radiation that provide a good quality of life and extend the dog’s life. Modern veterinary care and equipment can be costly, and dog owners should be aware of the costs should an emergency or illness arise and have a plan to address them.
If you budget for yearly wellness appointments and for the unexpected illness or emergency care, you will find the situation much less stressful. Pet insurance can help defray the costs, but again, dog owners should research options to find a plan that works best for your situation.
Finally, it is important to have an end-of-life plan. Make a plan for your dog’s care if you should die. Know who will care for your dog and what resources will be available to cover related expenses. Make certain that the person you designate is willing to take on this responsibility. Put this information in writing and make your family aware of your wishes.
Also, it is important to understand your responsibilities regarding your dog’s life. If your dog is no longer able to live with his usual routine or live without pain, then you may need to consider humane euthanasia. Your veterinarian will be an important resource for you when the time comes.
Dog ownership is a significant responsibility, but it does bring a lifetime of gratification, companionship, and love. If you have a dog, or decide to bring one into your life, I hope you sign the American Kennel Club’s pledge for responsible dog ownership.