Do You Really Want a Dog?

I love dogs. My own dog Storm (no longer with me) was the light of my life and a true soul mate. He was the best friend I’ve ever had and he taught me and helped me in ways I will be forever grateful for. It’s been over 3 years since I said goodbye and I still miss him every day. This article is not about me trying to convince anyone not to get a dog. It is about me trying to make people understand that dogs are so special, and they give so much, that they deserve us to do it properly. It breaks my heart to see dogs stuck in backyards day in day out, misunderstood, ignored and totally underestimated. Most people just don’t comprehend the enormous dedication it takes to be a worthy guardian and give their dog a life of fulfilment and happiness. Only then can you unlock their potential and allow them to give back fully. Once you have experienced this balance, however, it is worth all the effort tenfold. If you’re not prepared, or not educated, at worst it can be emotionally (and often financially) devastating for all involved.

Do you really want to share your life with a dog, and have this dog rely on you daily, for everything, for the next 10-15 years? Dog ownership is a big deal! It’s not something you do on a whim. Are you dreaming of the TV ads where the cute little clean puppy runs through the house and everyone says awwwww? Owning a dog is not just about the cuddles, treats, toys, playtime, fun walks together and big brown eyes staring up lovingly at you. Yes, it is these things, and so much more. But please, please, please, remember there is a really hard side too. Just like parenting, it also involves lots of hard stuff like repetition, sacrifice, discipline and patience. Be prepared for sleepless nights, huge time commitments, testing of your emotions and many years of responsibility. If you’re renting, be prepared to choose your next house (and even suburb) based on whether or not it’s pet friendly. Your dog may pee on, chew up or ruin your stuff. You may not be able to go away when you choose, and if you do, be prepared to organise and pay well for quality pet care. There will be vet bills, ongoing costs such as flea/tick prevention, training, quality food (low quality food will cost you more in the long run and is irresponsible anyways) and you will have to clean up dog poo, accept the probability of smudges and smears on your glass doors, wee marks on your lawn and less, if any, wildlife in your garden. If you do have any wildlife left,  your dog may bark non stop at them and drive your neighbours crazy. Your dog may harass your other animals, such as your chickens and your cat. They may nip at your children, steal your socks, pull your washing off the line and dig up your garden. They may leave hair on your sofa and your clothes, and constantly track mud and dirt onto the patio. Your car will probably smell like wet dog no matter how hard you try to keep it clean. Going camping? Check out all the places you’re not allowed to take dogs! Same goes for a day at the beach! You will now have to get used to carrying doggie poo bags everywhere you go – doesn’t really matter though, you’ll have to pick up their poo every day, for years, anyway. You will have to make time to wash them regularly, exercise them, teach and train them, stimulate their minds, provide fulfilment, socialise them, discipline them and generally be their parent and guardian. Did you know you can be sued if your dog accidentally gets out or slips their collar and causes an accident? Are you prepared to work through these things if they happen?

Your dog is not a set of golf clubs that you can put away or ignore when you have a new baby, when you’re no longer lonely, when you change careers or want to move into a unit. Their needs don’t change if you’re sick, tired, busy or upset, when the weather is bad or when they grow into a mature dog and have lost the ‘cute’ factor. You have set your dog up for TOTAL DEPENDENCE on you, which can be overwhelming.

Have you thoroughly researched the breed of dog you’re getting and do you understand what sort of things they will need to be fulfilled? Feeling sorry for a ‘shelter special’ only to realise that a hunting based breed has more energy and drive than you are capable of matching is unfair for you both. Don’t go choosing a working breed if you’re not prepared to challenge them daily and give them a job. Don’t pick a long haired dog or a short nosed dog if you live in hot weather, or a dog that is going to weigh more than you do when it matures! How much time and energy do you really have, consistently? Getting a dog who is ‘too much’ for your personality or lifestyle is as irresponsible and irrational as letting a P Plater drive a V8. Buying a cute cross breed puppy from a photo may work out for you, but it is pot luck. Why risk it?

Will your lifestyle be able to fulfil a dog long term? Being alone for more than a few hours a day is highly stressful for any social animal and can quickly contribute to behavioural issues and even susceptibility to illness. Dogs are pack animals and they are highly social, emotional and intelligent. Sensory and social deprivation can quickly result in an unhappy and unstable dog. If you are in a situation where you do have to leave your dog for 8 hours + daily, you will need to put extra effort into making up for this when you are at home. Having 2 dogs does NOT always solve the problem although in many cases this can be a great solution for the time you are away. (Please read my other article for tips on how to provide extra enrichment here: https://www.sitdropstay.com/importance-mental-stimulation-challenge/ ). A quick trip around the block and some time inside while you watch TV at night is far from your dog’s idea of a full, rich existence.

Bringing a young or immature puppy into an environment where they are left alone for more than 4 hours a day is in my opinion, to be avoided whenever possible. Some cope well, yes, but many do not. I personally believe it to be highly selfish and (in some dogs) akin to a form of mental and emotional torture to deprive a naturally social animal of this essential early developmental enrichment. You cannot go back and fix this later. You would never condone a young child being left alone for hours at a time in this way. I’m not entirely saying that you shouldn’t have or don’t deserve to have a puppy if you work. I’m saying that you need to allow for this and compensate as you would if you had a young child in your care – with daycare, by borrowing or fostering a friend’s dog as a nanny, by asking for flexible work hours or by taking your dog to work with you so they aren’t alone. If you can’t, maybe this is not the right time, or maybe consider getting an older dog who is able to cope with the longer periods of isolation. As we ourselves become more separated from each other, and work longer hours outside the home, we are also slowly creating a society of backyard prisoners in our dogs. The epidemic of behavioural issues we are seeing reflects this, and is largely due to our inability to see what we are doing from the outside. The conditioning being placed on us that pets our “ours” and just love being our little ‘void fillers’ or that they are fulfilled just waiting around for us to get home to provide us with company and entertainment is distorting the balance. They are animals and have their own needs to be happy, needs that are ancient and simple yet alarmingly absent in the lives of too many. Isn’t freedom is an important to a dog as it is to us?

As well as the many good times, there will also be lots of times when you need to be the parent, or ‘bad guy’. You are not there to be liked all the time, you are there foremost to raise your dog properly and ensure they are safe, balanced, healthy, well mannered and that they fit happily into society. Repeat after me “I’m disciplining you because I love you.” I see way too many dog owners taking the selfish “awwww but he likes it” or “I don’t want to upset her, she’s so cute” approach as an excuse to not step up, take responsibility for their dog and teach boundaries and respect. The world is full of dogs in shelters due largely to behavioural problems that could have been avoided. Be aware that they are many schools of thought out there at the moment that suggest that you should never tell your dog off or use any kind of negative reinforcement, and that everything has to be positive, and I see first hand what that can create. As a behaviour specialist, many dogs I see that are hyperactive, demanding, can’t control themselves, trash people’s personal boundaries, are over-reactive and anxious are dogs who haven’t had firm, consistent boundaries, consequences and strong (but loving) leadership. It would be great to reword the “positive only” movement to “as positive as possible”! Each dog is unique, but like kids, almost all need a balance of positive AND negative consequence. Please don’t be a lazy parent. Step up and do the hard stuff as well as the cuddles before it’s too late and your dog is unmanageable or unbalanced. If you’re inexperienced or unsure, invest in a dog trainer or dog behaviourist who can help you learn to ‘speak dog’ and show you how to communicate clearly. I think it should be compulsory. Your dog, and society, will thank you for it.

After considering all this, are you still ready for this huge commitment? Have I put you off? If I have, I’m glad, because it means that you’re not as keen as you need to be! Hopefully you’ve been inspired at the very least to really think it through long and hard and to make the best decision for you, your family and the dog. If you’re still up for this journey, and can honestly commit to the ups and downs and are in it for the long haul, then great! Go for it! You’re the type of owner who we need more of! Like any relationship or project, the bigger the investment, the bigger the return. The right dog can be your healer, your teacher and your friend, if you’ll allow them to be, and will offer you the most unconditional love imaginable.

Seems like a pretty good deal to me.