All it took was one look into those soulful puppy-dog eyes, and boom! You've fallen in love with an adorable dog at the shelter or rescue facility.
But the course of puppy love doesn’t always run smooth. Adopting a dog is a lifetime commitment (the lifetime of the dog, that is). Before you commit to dog ownership, you need to ask yourself some hard questions, like:
- Are you willing to spend time every day to play with and exercise the dog?
- Can you afford a lifetime's worth of food, vet care, and grooming and training expenses?
- Are you sure the dog will get along with other members of your household (including existing pets)?
- Can you deal with the restrictions on housing, travel, and your freedom that dog ownership brings?
- Are you expecting big changes in your life, like moving to a new home or having a child? If so, is this the right time to get a dog?
- What will you do if your dog turns out to have medical or behavioral problems?
Still ready to take the plunge? There are steps you can take to ensure that the adoption is a success.
Choose the Best Match
Looking for a hiking partner? A Chihuahua probably isn't the right choice. Not willing to spend a lot of time on grooming? You may not want a poodle.
Consider things like temperament, activity level, and grooming needs when looking for your new best friend, says Pamela Reid, PhD, vice president of behavioral sciences at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). No matter how cute that shelter dog is, if their needs don't fit your lifestyle, it’s not going to be a lifetime match.
“The more you and your dog can speak the same language, the greater chance you have of a beautiful, lifelong bond,” says Gary Weitzman, DVM, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society.
To avoid an impulse adoption, try making a list of what doggie traits are most important to you. Just remember, there's no one perfect pooch. So stay a little flexible.
Reid recommends asking the shelter or rescue staff questions about the dog that have to do with your lifestyle. That might include:
- Is this dog housetrained?
- How energetic and playful are they?
- How affectionate is this dog?
- Do you know how well they get along with children and other pets? (Bring yours to meet any dog you're thinking of adopting.)
- Does it seem like they've had any previous training?
“These are factors that can make or break a successful adoption,” Reid says.
Invest Time in Training
It’s hard to live with a misbehaving dog. In fact, behavior issues are among the top reasons that dogs are surrendered to shelters, Weitzman says.
Many shelters offer low-cost training classes. Pet stores and vets' offices also offer classes for both puppies and adult dogs. They teach everything from basic doggie skills to obstacle courses and scent training.
Your dog doesn’t need to be an A+ student to benefit from training. The goal, Weitzman explains, is to teach you to communicate with your dog. These are skills you'll use throughout the dog's life.
Training is about much more than teaching your dog to "sit" and "stay." It also builds your pup's confidence, helps you bond with your dog, and provides exercise and mental stimulation.
“Boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for undesirable behavior in pets,” Reid says.
Training is extra-important if you're adopting a puppy.
“Puppies don’t have any idea how to be companion animals,” says Weitzman, a certified animal welfare administrator. “You have to be ready to teach them. You’re their daycare, kindergarten, high school, college, and you have to be ready for that.”
Once classes end, you'll need to continue the training at home. Plan to spend at least 15 minutes a day -- using lots of positive reinforcement and tasty treats -- to ensure your dog retains the skills they learned in class.
Focus on Being Social and Active
Puppies are fearless, but as they grow up, they may become wary of new things.
"It’s imperative to expose a puppy to a full range of experiences in fun, positive ways and teach them that they can handle pretty much everything that they are going to encounter in their lives,” says Reid, a certified applied animal behaviorist.
Trips to the dog park, walks in different neighborhoods, and outings to dog-friendly stores introduce your dog to new people and environments. This builds their confidence and enhances their well-being.
Outdoor exercise is an essential part of socialization. Hikes on trails, walks in the park, and games of fetch at the dog park expose your dog to new sights, smells, sounds, and surfaces. They also introduce them to other four-legged playmates and help burn off energy.
“Regardless of your dog’s age, exercise is important to their health,” Weitzman says. “Plus, it will burn energy and give them a positive outlet instead of resorting to destructive behavior.”
Mental stimulation is important, too. And you can do it from the comfort of home.
"Food puzzles, toys that move on their own or make noises, chews, and doggy TV are all activities that most dogs enjoy,” Reid says.
Set Aside Savings
The cost of food, bowls, beds, leashes, collars, toys, and vaccinations adds up. And unexpected or emergency vet visits add to those expenses.
To make sure you can afford them, Weitzman advises, invest in pet insurance or open a separate savings account to cover the costs of vet care and pet supplies. This financial safety net might keep you from having to give up your dog because you can’t afford their care.
Regular wellness care, such as annual exams and heartworm and parasite testing, can also help prevent unexpected vet bills.
Many shelters offer low-cost vet services and operate pet food pantries. The idea is to keep pet owners from having to surrender their pets for financial reasons.
“Our goal is always to keep pets with the people who love them, so we’ll do anything we can to make that happen,” Weitzman says.