Visiting Vet: A puppy for Christmas?

Consider these guidelines before you decide.

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Jacob Owens

It’s that time of year. Sappy commercials, made-for-TV Christmas movies. The kids open the big box with the huge red bow. Out pops a puppy. Kids are overjoyed. Parents beam as they film the magical moment. The puppy is perfectly adorable and perfectly behaved. If only they showed the family a few weeks later. Puppy peeing and pooping on the rug. Dad yelling at the children that it’s their job to feed (walk, train) the dog. Mom mad that the dog chewed up her favorite shoes.

The first rule of pet adoption: Never ever give an animal as a surprise present. If you are thinking about giving an unexpected pet to an adult, I urge you to reconsider, even if you’re sure your elderly mother would love a kitten, or that it would be good for Grandpa to have a dog to walk. Talk to them first. Let them choose the pet personally. They are grownups. They need to be on board for all that sharing their space with an animal entails.

If you are an adult with school-age children who live at home, we may be able to bend the rule a little, with a few caveats. Be sure your children want a pet. Be sure they want THIS pet. If your daughter wants a pony and you get her two guinea pigs instead, you may end up being those piggies’ only friends. If your son wants a Great Dane and you get a miniature poodle because that’s what YOU like, he may not be thrilled. Be sure the pet is appropriate for your household in age, size, breed, and temperament. More about this later.

In any case, the most important guideline is simply that you, the adults, understand you are ultimately responsible for that animal’s well-being. You may not let the dog go hungry because your kid forgets to feed him. You may not leave the hamsters living in an unhealthy, dirty cage because a child didn’t clean it. You must not let animals suffer in a misguided attempt to teach young people responsibility. Pet ownership is a great way for children to grow and learn, but you have to actively parent them through this process. Remember to think ahead. Are your kids going away to summer camp? Heading to college soon? Dogs and cats can live 15 years or more. Are you prepared to care for the pet after the kids have flown the coop?

Our old dog, Flower, passed away a year ago from splenic cancer. It took me a long time to be ready for a new dog. I felt bad for my younger girl, Sydney, who missed Flower the most. It’s lousy having a mother who is a veterinarian, to actually live attached to a veterinary clinic, and not even have a dog. (We have two cats … and the two guinea pigs I gave her seven years ago instead of a pony … see above.) So, following my own advice, I finally decided to give Sydney a puppy for Hanukkah.

Step one. I made sure my husband was on board. Step two. I purchased a tiny porcelain dog at Mardells, which I wrapped and gave my daughter on the first night of Hanukkah: “This represents the dog we will pick together.” Step three. We all signed a written contract carefully outlining the responsibilities of owning a dog. The new pup would be a family dog, but Sydney would be in charge. My husband and I would help out as needed, and take over when our daughter leaves for college.

Once your household has agreed on getting a dog, decide if you want a puppy or an adult. Puppies are a lot of work. Seriously. On the other hand, with a puppy you get to do the training, and you may bond more easily. Other pets may adjust better to a pup rather than an adult. And, of course, well … it’s a puppy … (Everyone say “Aaawww.”) Adopting an adult dog has its own pros and cons. The animal will likely be housebroken, and hopefully past annoying adolescent behaviors like excessive chewing. On the other hand, adult rescues may arrive with behavioral baggage, so always research their history and why they are available for adoption.

Next, decide what size and breed would fit your family. Spend time perusing the AKC website. Are you up for the grooming needs of a poodle or Samoyed? Can you provide enough exercise for a herding dog like a border collie or Australian shepherd? Do you really have room for a Great Pyrenees? If you decide on a purebred, research breeders. Don’t buy from puppy mills. Look into rescue organizations. Nowadays you can find dogs of all sorts online. Each breeder, rescue, or adoption agency has its own procedure to follow. In some cases you have to be willing to adopt an animal without actually meeting it beforehand. In my opinion this is very risky. Temperament is more important than appearance. Although I have seen many clients make successful matches this way, I have also seen many end up with pets that did not suit them, so do your homework.

Once you have chosen a dog, be sure you have everything needed before putting the puppy in a box under the tree. (OK, please don’t actually put the puppy in a box.) Things will go better if you have all the necessary accoutrements right from the start. Collar, leash, bowls, crate, bed, toys, food, treats. Read some training books before the dog arrives, especially if getting a puppy. I forgot to do this, since, gee, I’m a veterinarian. Guess what? I like to think that I am a good vet, but I’m not so great a puppy trainer. I quickly corrected my oversight, ordering a few excellent training books (overnight delivery, please). Sydney and I, and our new pup, Quinna, are now right on track. In fact, I better go and take Quinna out. Right after I feed those guinea pigs.