I’ve lived with dogs for most of my life, and I’m still amazed at their capacity for affection and loyalty, even though we often don’t deserve it. I believe that, if you let them, dogs can enrich your life immeasurably, and lend it a sense of fulfilment and security that you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. But, like everything good in life, this doesn’t come for free.
I don’t claim to be an ‘expert’ on dogs, and on their behaviour and psychology, but having lived with them for over 30 years, I have a fair idea of what makes them tick. I’ve made my share of mistakes with them, and learned a lot in return, but people who want to get their first dog don’t usually have that benefit. So, based on my experiences, here are eight things I believe every first-time dog owner (or, indeed, any dog owner) should do.
Before you get your dog
1. Think hard about your reasons for getting a dog
Before you get your dog, think long and hard about why you want to do so. Whether you want the love and companionship, the security and loyalty, or the sense of fulfilment (or all of the above) that a dog can give you, being clear about your expectations from your dog will help you prepare yourself. Some people have dogs—especially big dogs—to enhance their social status, because they’ve been given one as a gift, or because their friends have dogs and it looked like fun. In my experience, this doesn’t work out very well, because it can be difficult for both dog and owner to stay committed to each other’s needs when the going gets a little tough. And it does get tough.
2. Decide whether it’s worth it or not
Owning a dog is no walk in the park (no pun intended). While the rewards can be incredible, they don’t come automatically, and having a dog involves a lot of time, energy and commitment from you. And it’s not cheap either. Besides any upfront cost you may need to pay to get your dog and have him or her registered, you will also need to reckon with the cost of food, and regular vet check-ups (even if they’re not sick). And—just like us—as dogs grow older, they tend to need more attention paid to their health. Overall, owning a dog is a big responsibility, and involves physical, emotional and financial investment. You need to decide whether the rewards outweigh the costs. But if you’re a first-time owner, this can be difficult to do.
3. Do your research
Without first-hand experience, it can be difficult to figure out everything that goes into owning and taking care of a dog. Luckily, we have the internet! All the information you need is out there, all you have to do is find it. Also, speak to friends, family, or even just acquaintances who have dogs, and ask them for their experiences. Find out the basics of dog behaviour, how they think, and how to go about training them. It’s also important to decide what kind of dog is best for you. While each individual dog will have its own personality, different breeds have different sets of shared characteristics.
The best kind of dog for you will depend on your basic reason for having a dog, on your lifestyle, and on the climate where you live. For example, if you live in an apartment, a big dog like a Labrador or German shepherd is probably not the best idea; if you need to leave your dog alone for hours while you go to work, a dog that is bred to work alone—like a Labrador—would do better than a dog that is bred to work in a pack—like a beagle; if you prefer to spend your free time at home in front of the TV, then a high-energy dog like a terrier would drive you crazy; and if you live in a hot country like India, getting a dog that’s bred for snow—like a husky or St. Bernard—is probably just condemning it to a slow, painful death. Some dogs need more grooming than others, some are more prone to certain kinds of disease, and some don’t do very well with children. The bottom line is: get a decent idea of what you’re getting into, if you do decide to get a dog. Remember that your dog will change your life, and be prepared.
Once you get your dog
4. Tank up on patience
Like I said before, having a dog is no walk in the park. At the risk of incurring the wrath of parents around the world, I believe dogs are like children. They can be cute and cuddly, but still need to be brought up properly. They are born only with instinct; everything else needs to be taught to them, and with patience. And like with a child, expecting a dog to miraculously behave perfectly and know all the right things without being taught is unrealistic. Without patient training, a dog’s instincts will assert themselves in ways that you probably wouldn’t want: the protective instincts of German shepherds can turn into aggression towards strangers; the retrieving instincts of Labradors can make them bring dead animals into the house; and so on.
Once you get your pup, he or she will need to be potty trained, which most dogs learn quite quickly. Something that is harder to do is stop them from chewing up your shoes and furniture: chewing is a way for them to relieve the itching caused by their teeth growing through their gums. Be warned, every pup will go through this phase to some degree, so buy some sturdy chew toys, keep your favourite shoes out of reach, and cover up those chewed up sofa legs as best you can when you have visitors. Pups also tend to bite playfully, not knowing that —unlike the fur-covered ears of their siblings—your skin can be damaged by their sharp little teeth. While they need to be taught to stop doing this, it needs to be done gently. And be prepared: pups can take up to three years to grow out of their rowdy and unruly ‘puppyish’ behaviour, so have patience.
You might want to consider adopting an adult dog instead of a pup. Lots of shelters house both pure-bred and mixed breed dogs, many of whom have gotten lost or have been abandoned by their owners. While these may come with some emotional baggage from their previous life experiences, the will most likely not need to be potty trained and will have outgrown their chewing phase. Also, adopting a rescue dog will probably be significantly cheaper than buying a pup from a breeder. If you want to adopt an adult dog, get in touch with your local pet shelters. If you’re in Hyderabad, India, you could get in touch with the Blue Cross of Hyderabad or People for Animals’ Hyderabad chapter.
5. Be firm, but gentle
An important part of training your dog is to show him or her what’s allowed and what isn’t. I’ve seen that rewarding dogs for good behaviour is more likely to show lasting results than punishing bad behaviour. Usually, all that’s needed is a sharp ‘no!’ when your dog’s out of line, to snap him or her out of the state of mind that’s causing the behaviour. And rewarding your dog with lots of affection and the occasional treat when he or she does something right will go a long way to making sure the behaviour is repeated.
That being said, if you think you have no choice but to smack your dog (and I admit, I’ve been there on a few occasions), use a rolled-up newspaper for a smart rap on the back or thigh. The sound, more than the pain, is what acts as a deterrent. Never hit your dog around the head, beat them continuously or inflict significant pain on him or her. Not only is it cruel, it can make your dog fearful, and a fearful dog is more likely to bite in self-defence. If your dog constantly does things that you don’t want despite your best efforts, instead of getting angry, consider that he or she might just be bored and frustrated. Which brings me to my next point.
6. Get ready to get active
Every dog needs exercise. Without exercise, not only will your dog not be healthy, he or she might get bored and act out in destructive ways. In my experience, most bad behaviour in dogs is the result of them getting little or no exercise. Imagine how frustrated you would be if you were forced to sit around the house all day with nothing to do! While I recommend that you take your dog for a walk for at least 15 minutes every day, the good news is that you can give your dog just as much exercise inside the house as well. A good game of ‘fetch’ will have him or her tired and happy in no time, and you can come up with your own games at home to keep your dog physically—and mentally—stimulated, while getting in some healthy exercise yourself. Many dog owners leave it to the house help to take care of the exercise bit, but I believe that they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to build a better relationship with their dog. After all, why would a dog do what you want if it doesn’t really know you?
7. Get family and friends involved
Bringing a dog into your home is like suddenly having a new member of the family who shares your home, your time and your resources. And to integrate your dog properly, the rest of the family needs to be involved too. If you take it upon yourself to feed, groom, train and otherwise care for your dog, he or she may not see the rest of the family as part of the ‘pack’ and might treat them differently. Instead, get everyone in the immediate family involved in training and caring for him or her, and your dog will love and protect everyone equally. Remember, though, that everyone needs to train and correct the same way, or your dog will get confused.
Sometimes, dogs that aren’t used to seeing other people in the home may react fearfully or aggressively. A great way to get your dog comfortable with other people is to regularly get friends and other family members to meet him or her, both inside the home and outside. And if you can get your dog to meet other dogs in neutral settings like parks, that will keep him or her from becoming fearful or aggressive towards other dogs as well.
8. Prepare for a wandering dog
Most dogs are naturally independent, and will be tempted to run away at every opportunity. This is not because they aren’t loyal to you, but because of their instinct to investigate unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. Leave your gate open, or take your eye off your dog while walking him or her without a leash, and you run the risk of your dog wandering away without even noticing. If you’re lucky, he or she will find their way back. Many dog owners aren’t.
It’s probably safe to say that every dog owner will experience this at least once, so it pays to be prepared. Make sure that, if your dog does wander away, you’ve done everything you can beforehand to help you get him or her back. Put a tag with your name and phone number on your dog’s collar (they’re called dog tags for a reason, after all); buy a GPS tag like Wagr for your dog; and think about microchipping your dog, though not many vets in India have the needed facilities. Another good idea is to take your dog for regular walks through the immediate neighbourhood, so that your neighbours see you together and can tell you if they see your dog wandering alone.
9. Finally, NEVER abandon your dog
The number of dogs being abandoned at shelters or simply left to fend for themselves on the street is increasing every year. Not only do most house dogs not survive on their own, the ones that do then contribute to the growing number of strays on the streets, especially in countries like India. Most shelters are overburdened and underfunded, and are forced to euthanize many dogs for lack of space and resources.
This is extremely cruel and unfair to animals that, from the day they are born, put their trust in humans to care for them—no matter how undeserved that trust. You may have a completely valid reason for having to give up your dog—maybe you can’t take care of him or her anymore, or you never wanted one in the first place but were given one as a Christmas gift—but it is your responsibility to try and find your dog another home, one where he or she could have a full life with a family that loves and cherishes them. Dogs are living, breathing creatures with personalities and feelings, just like us. And just like us, they have the right to a good life.