As many of you know, we adopted a four-year-old Bichon-Poodle mix at the end of March. We named him Gus, and he quickly became an important family member. I thought I’d write a post about what it’s like to own a dog for the first time, as I’m sure there are others out there considering it.
Neither Matt nor I had ever lived with a dog before. Matt had a cat growing up, my family had nothing more exotic than fish. In fact, Matt was quite fearful of dogs as a child and I was bitten by a German Shepherd at a young age, so we’d really shied away from them most of our lives. Enter Baxter, lover of all dogs and babies! It wasn’t so much that he begged and begged for a dog and so we gave in, but rather that his love for dogs helped me start to notice them and appreciate them for the first time. And in a dog-centric neighborhood like ours, that was easy.
We carefully chose the time to bring a dog home. Last year I was home a lot during the day, mainly working out of the house, and we realized shortly before Spring Break that the boys and I would be home for the whole 10 days and it would be an ideal time to get a dog acclimated to our home. Plus, the weather was showing signs of improving here, so if we ended up getting a dog that wasn’t house-trained, we wouldn’t mind (as much) going outside a million times a day!
We were limited in the breeds we could consider due to our allergies. However, I was very surprised that every time we visited a shelter in Chicago, there were at least 3-4 good options for us. Somehow I’d previously thought that the only way to get a dog we could count on being non-shedding and low on allergens would be to buy one from a breeder, because we’d really know the lineage. Turns out, it’s not all that hard to tell if a dog is going to be okay as long as you’ve become familiar with your options. We had spent a lot of time with our neighbors’ Bichon-Poodle mix last winter and knew that a) this was a great dog for kids, b) the right size for condo living, and c) we weren’t allergic to him, so when we happened upon our little guy at the Anti-Cruelty Society, we felt confident we could have him in our home. Plus he was so extremely sweet and we loved the idea of rescuing this scared pup who so clearly wanted out of the shelter.
We read a chapter in one of Cesar Millan’s books about how to choose a dog in which he gave some suggestions about shelter dogs. There were some temperament tests we tried out (such as dropping a set of keys nearby to see how jumpy he was) and he passed them all. But you really aren’t going to see a dog’s personality emerge until 6-8 weeks after you bring him home, I’m told, so it truly is a crapshoot. Gus settled in as time went on, but just like people, no dog is without his challenges.
Our biggest challenges with Gus have been that he gets jumpy when kids run and are loud in our house (we can credit him with slowing and quieting down our kids, but we have to stay on top of visiting kids so that Gus doesn’t get freaked out and, in turn, freak them out), squirrels make him bonkers (we haven’t been able to let the kids walk him all summer due to the major squirrel activity outside), and he is very unfriendly towards other dogs and strangers when he’s on leash. Off leash he’s great (he plays happily with other dogs at daycare for hours at a time), but on walks we have to pull him aside when other dogs are passing, or cross the street in advance, and we try to warn people before they put their hand out to pet him. Which stinks because everyone always wants to greet him and pet him, he’s so damn cute! The theory is that some of his behaviors probably stem from not having been neutered until we got him at age 4 and that he hadn’t been formally trained; he was obedient and wanted to please, but he was “rough around the edges”, as our trainer described him.
We hired a dog trainer the week we brought Gus home, and that was a really good move that I’d highly recommend. We were referred to someone who comes to your home and works with the family three times over six months. It doesn’t sound like much, but a full hour of discussing and working with your dog 1:1 with a trainer who can give you immediate things to work on in your own environment goes a long way. We only just needed our third session recently, 5 months after getting the dog. We worked on a whole range of basic commands, discussed the layout of the building and where his crate should be to cut down on alarming noises, and now have enough skills to keep him quite calm around other dogs and squirrels. I was also able to email her with any problems that came up between sessions and she gave me detailed instructions about what to do. For newbies like us, this was huge. This winter we are going to join her class for dogs that are overreactive to other dogs on leash and work through that. I agree with a friend’s assessment that in another 6-12 months he’s going to be even more relaxed.
Happily, our trainer told me last week that we are her favorite “shelter dog success story” and that every family should have a “Gus”. Our dog, who was jumpy and nervous when he arrived, has greatly mellowed. This week we had made so much progress with the squirrel obsession that I was able to give the leash back to Baxter to walk him because I felt confident that the dog wouldn’t yank his arm off if a squirrel ran by; this made us all very happy. Finally, a loose leash!
People aren’t kidding about the expense of a dog. Beyond the food, basic vet bills for a check-up and shots, and the few things you need to buy initially for your dog, there are plenty of incidentals, and they’re not all cheap. For instance, Gus has no serious health concerns (thank goodness), but his breed is prone to allergies and he gets hot spots very easily (allergic reactions that he very quickly scratches to the point of needing antibiotic ointment – we’ve gone through 4 tubes in 5 months). If you aren’t home all the time, you are likely to pay a dog-walker to come by and take the dog out during the day; while that isn’t very expensive (we’ve paid $10 for 15 minutes), it adds up over time. Our dog barks a lot when we’re out and, given that we’re in a condo, I don’t want to torture the neighbors. So he goes to a doggie daycare, which he LOVES, three days a week when I’m at work. It’s nothing when you’re used to paying for childcare (i.e. a full day equals about 2 hours of a babysitter), but again, it adds up. And unless you take dog-friendly vacations (which we have yet to experience), there’s boarding. I’m so glad we have this amazing place five minutes from our house because Gus is so comfortable there and they do crate-free boarding, but it adds another line to the vacation budget.
Another thing to consider is how much freedom you’re accustomed to. Now that our kids are older and we can go out and do things as a family all day, it is hard to have to figure our dog into the plans sometimes. We occasionally still get swept up in some great plan for the day and then look at each other and say, “What about Gus?” and realize we either need to curtail the plan or drop him at daycare. I was recently going to go out in the evening but realized that since he’d been gone all day and Matt was away, it wouldn’t be right to leave him alone all evening. My friends were flexible enough to come hang out at my house instead. It really takes some getting used to.
The cost, the responsibility, and the effort are realities, and are probably what cause a huge percentage of families to give a new dog up by the end of the first year. I get it. There have been days, especially early on, when I have shaken my head and wondered what on earth I was thinking when I pushed to get a pup. And I wanted to make sure I discussed them here, because people need to know. It can be hard and there’s a real period of adjustment. But, truly, the benefits of having Gus in our family far outweigh the challenges. He is a delightful addition. He makes us laugh, we love to cuddle with him (especially in the evenings when Matt and I have him on the couch between us while we watch TV: bliss!), it’s an excellent responsibility for the kids to help take care of him, I love that he’s listening for unusual noises all night (especially when Matt’s away), and it makes me smile when I wake up in the morning and see that little face looking up at me from his bed next to ours. Also – and I know I’m a geek in this regard – but having a dog has been a wonderful education for all of us; it’s opened up a whole part of life I knew nothing about, and that’s been fascinating.
I’d do it all over again, and we’ve even occasionally discussed getting a second one (not happening anytime soon!), but I do caution anyone thinking about getting a dog to do some reading, talk to other people about their experiences, and make sure you can afford the time and money before jumping in – it’s not the same as adding another child to the family, but there are some elements of it that are awfully similar.