The pros and cons of getting a dog

Puppies can bring a lot of joy to families but parents should be aware of the added responsibility involved in pet ownership.

A year after adopting our puppy, it’s safe to say our family has learned a lot about the realities of dog ownership. No, the children won’t walk the dog (Jasper, a Labrador-Bernese mix, has grown too big for them to safely handle on a leash). He probably needs more exercise than we can give him during the week, especially in wintertime. He hasn’t destroyed our house, a few mishaps notwithstanding. But we’ve all come to love him more than I thought possible.

We knew Jasper was the right choice for our family when our kids would regularly choose to play with him over watching television or being on the computer. They would race home from school or a friend’s house to play ball with him or brush his coat.

We’ve gone through countless containers of doggie treats, used to convince him to do various tricks. He patiently allows the girls to clamber all over him, scratch his tummy and even take away his chew toys. It helps that he is a gentle giant, eager to join us on our hikes and capable of keeping up with our active family. I’ve even grown more tolerant of dog slobber when he comes to greet me at the door, though it’s had a negative impact on our dry cleaning bills.

Long-term commitment

That being said, adopting a dog has meant some changes to our routine, and a lot of new responsibilities. Any family thinking of taking this step might want to consider a number of different factors before they jump in. “Adopting a dog is as much a marriage as anything,” cautions Gaby Popper, owner of Montreal’s Dog Obedience School. “Making the right choices improves your chances of success. Making the wrong choices guarantees failure.”

First of all, consider honestly whether you will have the time and patience a dog will need. Some people compare adopting a dog to adding another child to their family — the vast majority of the work falls on the parents (no matter how much the kids insist differently). Puppies, in particular, will need consistent patience and care to ensure they learn to chew on their toys and not your brand new boots or your children’s stuffed animals. However, even an adult dog will need you (and not just your kid) for training and for company. And of course, it’s the grown-ups who will chauffeur the dog to the vet, make regular trips to buy dog food and ensure it gets adequate exercise, even when it’s dark, -40 degrees or pouring rain.

Next, are you ready for a long-term commitment? Puppies don’t stay puppies forever, and a dog can live from 10-15 years, well beyond your kids’ early childhoods. Too many pets end up at the shelter because the families who adopted them didn’t realize that the cute puppy would grow into a large dog needing a great deal of exercise, food and care.

Assuming you feel comfortable with the answers to those questions, and no one in your family suffers from severe dog allergies (even the supposedly hypoallergenic breeds can still cause problems), Popper advises potential dog owners to think through the following elements:

Breed characteristics

Spend some time at the library or on the Internet researching different breeds so you know what you are taking on. Some breeds, such as Weimeraners, need lots of exercise, while others, such as Bernese Mountain Dogs and Daschunds, need less. “If I’m choosing a Collie, or another kind of herder, it will obviously be noisier than another kind of dog,” Popper explains. “If I’m picking a Retriever, I need to expect that it will pick things up and carry it around in its mouth.”

With dogs that are mixes, you don’t know as clearly what you are going to get, so you will need to find out what you can about the dog’s background and spend a bit of time with it in different situations to gauge its traits.

Temperament towards children

Some breeds are naturally more patient and tolerant of the antics of little kids, while others don’t react so well. “One out of every six dogs will bite children,” says Popper, so it is important to ask breeders and shelters for advice about temperament. Breeds regularly labelled “kid-friendly” are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Schnauzers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Irish Setters, Bichon Frisés, Airedale Terriers, Poodles, Wheaten Terriers and Beagles. Very tiny dogs, such
as Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and Yorkshire Terriers may not be suitable for very young children because the dog can be inadvertently injured during rough play. With any dog, training is imperative.

Size and space

Do you live in an apartment or a house? Do you have access to a fenced-in yard? Are you near parks, dog runs, or other places where your dog will get a chance to run free? If not, consider a breed and size of dog that can get an adequate amount of exercise in your home or on urban strolls.

Grooming, sex of your pet and physical needs

If you’re worried about dealing with shedding, you may be surprised to learn you are better off with a long-haired than a short-haired dog. Short-haired dogs tend to shed their fur much more prodigiously than those with longer fur. Popper advises potential dog owners to think about whether you prefer a female, which tends to be more home-oriented and aloof, or a male, which can be a bit more shameless in his expressions of affection. Ask how often your pet will need to go outside to relieve himself or to get exercise.

Health

“The health of the animal is terribly important,” Popper says. Before adopting any animal, you should make sure the animal gets a completely clean bill of health, or else you may be stuck with expensive vet bills and a family distraught over the suffering of their pet. Breeders should be registered with the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), and provide complete paperwork on the animal you are adopting. Pet stores should only be considered as a last resort, and then only if they have an official seal of approval from the CKC. Dogs that are rescued, whether in shelters or animal rescue organizations, must still be checked out by a vet and evaluated for common health risks.

Popper doesn’t even count a dog’s appearance in this list, though most people are first attracted to a dog by its looks. “I’d put up with three eyes and a hump on its back if it’s healthy and has the right connection to my family,” jokes Popper, who has seen many owners adopt dogs that looked cute or tough, only to be disappointed by the animal’s true temperement.

Constant source of amusement

Before adopting Jasper, we spent several months on the Internet combing through animal adoption and rescue shelter websites. Virtually every organization made it clear which dogs would be acceptable for a household with children, and which wouldn’t. Without our children in tow (since we knew they’d instantly fall in love with anything furry), we visited some potential candidates. We eventually found our dog through the SPCA in the Monteregie, a no-kill, non-profit shelter on the South Shore. They had him neutered and evaluated by a vet as part of the adoption fee, and even arranged (for a fee) to have his hips x-rayed for the hip dysplasia that is all-too-common in large breeds.

There is no question that Jasper has added to our list of responsibilities, but he has also been a constant source of amusement. For every puddle of pee and shredded up roll of toilet paper, there have been many more times where he has made us laugh or wrestled us down to the floor for a big, furry cuddle. On many occasions, he has been the reason we’ve gone out as a family for a walk or romp in the backyard. And I even once found our 5-year-old curled up with him in a corner, recovering from a tiff with her sisters and finding unquestioned acceptance and solace in his adoring brown eyes. It kind of makes all the effort worthwhile.

Websites offer help and information

Here are some Internet sites where you can find out more about choosing, adopting or fostering a dog.

For help selecting a dog and tips on training them, visit

www.raisingspot.com/intro_choosing_puppy.php

animal.discovery.com/breedselector/dogselector.do
(a questionnaire that guides you to select the right breed based on your preferences)

bestdogforchildren.net

www.petplace.com

Several local groups help families adopt dogs:

www.animatch.ca
A non-profit adoption and matching service

www.rosieanimaladoption.org
A volunteer run organization offering dog adoptions as well as short-term fostering

www.sophiesdogadoption.com
A Montreal woman who has dogs available for adoptions

For information on local pet services,
visit the Pet Section of our Resource Directory