dog ownership 101

by Anna Rabhan
Kids are home from school for the summer, spending more time playing at friends’ houses – friends who have dogs. Families are taking vacation time and those backyard barbecues might be more fun with a dog to play fetch with. Summer could be the best – or worst – time to get a dog.
People may have more free time during the summer to devote to getting a new pet settled in. On the other hand, they may be lulled into thinking they have more time than they will come fall. In a study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, in which researchers surveyed people surrendering their pets to shelters across the country, 25 percent of people surveyed cited incompatibility with their family’s lifestyle as the reason for surrender and 15 percent cited the family’s preparation (or, rather, lack thereof) and expectations. In adopting a pet into your family, you are essentially making a promise to that animal to provide for his needs and care for him for the rest of his life. Understanding what’s involved in doing so is the first step to ensuring that the promise is kept.
There are three closely related questions to answer when deciding to bring a dog into your life. You will need to decide whether or not you should get a dog in the first place, what kind of dog it should be and where to get it from. Remember that 40 percent of people surveyed in the NCPPSP study decided, after the fact, that they were in over their heads where their new pet was concerned. Clearly, not enough people examine the question of suitability carefully, honestly and thoroughly.
The Best Home
When deciding whether or not to get a dog, educate yourself about the commitment involved in both time and effort. Really examine the fact that your dog will need exercise, training, socialization and affection. Those things require time. Exactly how much time will depend on whether you choose a puppy or an older dog and what breed you choose. If we assume a dog who is middle-of-the-road in age, size, energy level, grooming needs and training experience, the dog might require roughly 14 hours a week of your time and attention. That averages out to about two hours a day. Depending on your lifestyle, that may seem like a lot or it may not. If it seems like a lot, rethink the decision of getting a dog. Going forward with it would be selfish and unfair to the dog. If, however, you honestly examine your schedule, your lifestyle, your finances, and all the other factors involved and find that a dog would be a perfect fit, decide next what kind of dog is best.
The Best Dog
It makes sense to make the decisions of whether or not to get a dog and of what kind of dog to get simultaneously, as many of the considerations involved in the two decisions are the same. For example, if you’re in an apartment and will be for some time and also don’t have the time to care for a dog, the best decision is to not get one. However, the apartment dweller who has time to take his dog to dog parks and on walks may decide that many types of dogs would be fine, just not a Great Dane. Although breed doesn’t necessarily determine a dog’s personality, there are some unavoidable truths about certain breeds that you must consider, along with grooming needs, possible health issues and other factors, when choosing a dog. For example, if combing a dog’s coat is not something you would enjoy doing, don’t get an Afghan Hound.
Where to Adopt
The question of where to get your canine companion is, of course, tied to what kind of dog you’re interested in. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 8-10 million cats and dogs enter shelters in this country each year and 25 percent of the dogs are purebred. Surely, the kind of dog you want is waiting at a shelter or rescue organization near you. Still, some people have their reasons for wanting a dog with strictly documented origins. They may want a show, competition or field dog, or they may have fears of unknown health or behavioral problems in getting a shelter dog. In those cases, a responsible, professional breeder may be appropriate. Avoid getting a dog from a pet store, Craigslist or the classifieds. There is much controversy about puppy mills and these sources, so anyone thinking of getting a dog should definitely research the subject. “The bottom line,” says the Humane Society of the United States, “is that responsible breeders do not sell their puppies to pet stores… .” One Southside woman, who wishes not to be named, tells the story of her precious pooch as a cautionary tale. She and her husband wanted a Lab and looked at breeders, but none of the breeders they contacted were expecting litters for months. Rather than wait, the couple got their dog from a local pet store. The store claimed that the dog would be purebred and would come with papers. The couple received the dog, but not the papers. They loved the dog so much, though, that they didn’t press the issue. The sweet puppy they got has allergies and severe hip dysplasia and by the age of 10 months had already required several surgeries. The lesson here is twofold. First, patience, whether getting a dog from a shelter, rescue organization or a breeder, is key. Second, don’t think that by buying a dog from a pet store you are “rescuing” a puppy mill dog. You would only add to the problem by being part of the demand.
Should you decide to get your new friend from a shelter or rescue organization, do your research. You would be giving a dog a new lease on life and providing a “forever home” for a dog who never asked to be in such straits in the first place. There are wonderful dogs of all ages, breeds, temperaments and backgrounds just waiting for responsible, loving humans. On the other hand, some rescue dogs have never experienced a responsible, loving human and may have special physical or psychological needs because of it. These dogs need heroes too, but capable heroes, not another human who “feels bad” and wants to try. The dog will likely end up right back where he started. Realize that most shelters and rescue organizations require an adoption fee at minimum and have varying requirements for ownership. They want to ensure that their dogs will finally find a good home. A good place to start looking for a shelter dog is The ASPCA’s shelter finder will point you toward local shelters, including Jacksonville’s Animal Control, the Jacksonville Humane Society ( and other, smaller shelters. While First Coast No More Homeless Pets isn’t a shelter, they do have a list of resources on their website ( that includes contact information for shelters as well as other useful resources. Usually, dogs cared for by rescue groups, some of which are breed-specific, will be in a foster situation rather than a group shelter. These organizations will also have varying requirements and fees. A place to start is, where you can search for rescue organizations (and shelters) or call up a list of adoptable dogs in your area and see the contact information for the custodial organization. Visit the shelter or foster location and the dog you’re considering adopting more than once. Take all family members to see the potential new addition to make sure she is compatible with everyone. This might be more possible with rescue organizations than with shelters. Some shelters limit the number of visitors and some don’t allow children below a certain age to interact with the dogs. These should be questions you ask when researching shelters and rescue organizations.
Significant research is necessary when using a breeder as well. Start with recommendations and referrals from responsible dog owners rather than relying on a breeder’s self-description. If you don’t know anyone to ask, try the American Kennel Club ( The AKC conducts inspections of their registered breeders so you can be assured that no AKC-registered breeder is actually a puppy miller in disguise. Additionally, their website contains good information on what to look for in a breeder. Also, join a web forum for the breed you’re considering. There’s one for just about every breed, like for Labs or for Maltese. These are people who love the breed and can suggest breeders for investigation. Even if you’re not looking for a breeder, you’ll want the support of groups like these after your new friend comes home. When you’ve found two or three breeders you’re comfortable with, the AKC recommends that you visit the kennel and view the dogs. Ask lots of questions, but also watch how the breeder and dogs interact with each other. Do the dogs seem to love their master or fear him? If a breeder doesn’t ask you questions in return, think carefully about your choice. Responsible breeders want to make sure their dogs go to responsible owners. Finally, realize from the start that you will have to be patient when getting a dog from a breeder. Knowledgeable, responsible breeders do not constantly breed their dogs, so the next litter may be well in the future. Also, you will have to wait about nine weeks after your dog is born before you can take her home. Consider this time a golden opportunity to educate yourself, to prepare and to investigate all that you will need to care for your new dog.
While awaiting your dog’s arrival, busy yourself with research on dog ownership. Good books to read are The Puppy Whisperer by Paul Owens and Terence Cranendonk and Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan with Melissa Jo Peltier. Read the dog ownership information on reputable websites such as the AKC’s, the ASPCA’s and the Humane Society’s sites. Watching television shows isn’t a bad idea either, especially to introduce kids to what it means to own a dog. Shows like Dogs 101 can introduce kids to different kinds of dogs and their needs. While shows like The Dog Whisperer and It’s Me or the Dog deal more with correcting behavior, the concepts of what a dog needs to be healthy and whole (like exercise, discipline and affection) and of training using praise and rewards are useful ones for kids to understand. It might even be instructive to watch these shows with your kids and discuss where the owners of dogs with problematic behavior went wrong and what they should have done instead.
Your Dog’s Health
Your dog will need stuff and services, so secure them before he comes home. You’ll need to find a vet and an emergency care facility. Start at the American Animal Hospital Association (, which holds its member hospitals and veterinarians to high standards. Ask around about people’s experiences with area vets and, when you have your short list, go visit them. The staff and veterinarian should have no qualms about answering your questions and giving you a tour. Michael Bredehoeft, DVM, of Switzerland Animal Hospital near Fruit Cove (, says that people should look for a solid reputation, updated equipment and the vet’s participation in continuing education. He says that one thing a lot of people don’t consider is price. “Most people assume that every veterinarian provides the same service and the same quality … and I know from experience that that is just simply not the case.” Dr. Bredehoeft was Chief of Staff at a local emergency hospital for five years and got to see the end result of the work of many vets. “Most of the time it would reflect on the pricing, so the ones that were cheaper … typically have more problems, probably because they ended up spending less time on the animal.” The majority of veterinary expenses will be incurred within the first year of your dog’s life and will include immunizations, spaying or neutering (absolutely essential for your pet’s health and for not adding to the population of unwanted pets) and blood work. Acute veterinary care can be expensive, so investigate and seriously consider pet insurance. Again, use web forums to see what people are saying about the different options out there. Petplan ( and VPI Pet Insurance ( seem to be the major players. The AKC also offers pet health insurance. Find out if the company you’re considering covers congenital health problems. Hip dysplasia is a very common congenital malady in dogs and one that many plans don’t cover. If you already have a pet and are unable to afford its care, First Coast No More Homeless Pets is a fantastic community resource offering free or low-cost veterinary services, including spaying and neutering. Visit their website ( to find out about these services or about how to donate. With the prevalence of fleas, ticks and mosquitoes in the warm Southeast, flea and tick prevention and heartworm prevention are essential. Most veterinarians prefer that you get those medicines from them, but often online sources can be less expensive. Look into sites like and As far as ongoing care for your pet, Dr. Bredehoeft says that heartworm prevention, flea prevention, annual checkups and annual blood work are the most important things you can do for your dog “to pick problems up early before they become chronic and clinical.”
Microchipping & Collars
You’ll want to do what you can to prevent your dog from being lost or stolen, as are between five and ten million pets each year. Pet theft is so prevalent that the best policy is to treat your dog like a child and provide constant supervision. Things happen, though, and if someone has left a gate open or a board has fallen off the fence overnight, your neighbors will know where the dog belongs if he’s wearing his collar and tags at all times. Collars come off, though, and microchipping, at between $50 and $70 for the implant and registration, is your best bet for a happy homecoming. Consult your vet about microchipping options. Again, keep in mind that one of the services First Coast No More Homeless Pets offers at a discounted rate for those in financial distress is microchipping.
The Educated Pet
Use this time to scout and choose training classes too. The importance of training cannot be overstated. The NCPPSP study shows a direct correlation between lack of training and relinquishment of dogs to shelters, with 96 percent of relinquished dogs having received no training at all. Jane Hawley, Pet Training Instructor with PetSmart, calls it “blending families.” Dogs who exhibit behaviors that don’t blend well with the family situation, such as barking, aggressive behavior and not playing well with children, are often given up. “But if we can train the dog to mind the owner and train the owner to communicate with the dog, then … [it’s] likely they won’t be given up.” Use what you’ve learned from your reading to begin training at home, especially if your puppy can’t be with other dogs until he’s had his last round of immunizations, but a class will give your dog socialization and the experience of obeying the commands of someone other than just you. PetSmart ( and some private dog parks in the area, such as Dog Wood Park (, offer training classes. There are also a huge number of private trainers in Jacksonville. Investigate their experience and whether their specialty is normal obedience training or correcting behavior problems. Choose someone whose training philosophy and methods you’re comfortable with. For example, Hawley says, “[We] do behavior-modification, positive-reward-based [training] … to teach the dog to make right decisions – motivating them through the praise and through the treat, of course, and then modifying their behavior so that they’re actually making the right choices. Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to continue.” Don’t neglect to ask around and see what people say about any trainer you’re considering. Remember, though, that training is ultimately your job. Training classes will end, but your work in training and obedience with your dog never should.
In addition to the needs of the family, consider the needs of the dog when thinking about the extent and type of training you’ll provide. Dogs may get anxious or even destructive if their intelligence and energy isn’t properly channeled, so think in terms of training for discipline (sit, stay, etc.), but also training for stimulation and fulfillment. Border collies were born to herd and have amazing energy and stamina, for example, so consider agility training or Frisbee training (neither of which has to be competitive) or even some basic sheepdog training so that the dog may be less likely to nip at your children while attempting to herd them. There are organizations, classes and web forums for literally anything you could want to train your dog in and, many times, those same private dog trainers you look into for obedience training will offer specialized types of training.
Feeding your Dog
What you feed your dog is also important to research in light of the discovery of melamine in dog food from China and similar scandals. Susan Thixston runs a site ( dedicated to informing the public about recalls and major changes in the pet food industry. You could call her an industry watchdog! The thinking these days in dog food is to stay away from corn, wheat, soy and byproducts, but no matter what you end up feeding your pet, make an effort to know where the food comes from, what’s in it and how it will affect your dog. Start at and and ask that forum you’ve joined what people are feeding their dogs and why. Part of researching food is finding out what your new dog’s ideal weight is and how much to feed him. Make sure you have a good handle on what plants and human foods are toxic to dogs too (
Basic Equipment
Your dog will need some basic equipment, including food and water dishes; a leash and collar; grooming equipment, including nail clippers, ear cleaner, a doggie toothbrush and toothpaste, a brush, and soap-free dog shampoo; poop bags; toys; a crate; and a car safety restraint. You could go all out for these things, but try your luck at yard sales or on Craigslist, especially for the more expensive items such as the crate.
Fencing & Dog Parks
If possible, fence your yard. If you have a fence, make sure it is in good repair and can contain your dog. If a fence is not feasible, look into dog parks. There are free community dog parks, which you can locate on municipal parks websites such as or on sites like There are also a few private dog parks in the area that offer memberships like Dog Wood Park and Julington Creek Animal Walk ( Dog Wood’s manager, Cheryl Dunakin, says that when looking for a membership dog park, “You’d want to bring your dog to a dog park that has basic rules and regulations, and it’s nice when it’s staffed. Not all dogs are suited to go to the dog park for whatever reason – some may not be social with other dogs and some may not be social with people. That’s one of the advantages of going to a private park or one that’s monitored – the staff can kind of weed those dogs out. It just makes it a safer environment and more enjoyable for both the people and pets.”
In preparation for your dog’s homecoming, don’t forget to dogproof the house. Anything that can be chewed, swallowed or broken should be moved. Even if you get down on all fours to do this, you will have missed something, so keep a close eye on your pooch as he explores and remove things from his reach that he shouldn’t have. Before your new dog comes home is a good time to get in the habit of closing toilet seats, securing trash cans and not leaving food or utensils toward the front of counter tops. Many problems and dangers can be avoided by properly utilizing a crate. Baby gates are another tool to keep yourself and your dog safe. Meal preparation time, for example, can be dangerous for a human. Dogs are sure to come running when the fridge opens, and approximately 80,000 people a year are injured in falls having something to do with their pets. Your dog is at risk too. Falling knives, dishes on the edges of countertops that can easily be pulled off and hot stove burners are just some of the dangers of the kitchen. Simply blocking access to the area while you are preparing meals is a safety measure you can take for both you and your pet. Baby gates are also something that you may find at yard sales or consignment stores.
Get Excited!
Finally, involve the whole family in the preparations for your dog’s homecoming. Just like with a child, all caregivers need to agree on how a dog’s discipline will be approached. Children need to be taught how to play with a dog and how not to. Jane Hawley says, “Supervision is always paramount with a dog and a child.” Aside from accidents resulting from the dog’s behavior, such as jumping, she says, “The type of play that children like to do is running. A dog will chase a child that runs and likely could hurt the child. Children have a tendency to pull things out of the dog’s mouth …” This is why she recommends training any children in the dog’s life, as well as training the dog. Knowledge can empower your child to seek a good relationship with the dog by teaching the child how to care for and train a dog and how to be a responsible pet owner.
The Big Day
Do not plan to bring your new dog home on a day that will be otherwise busy for your family. This is not a day to run your new friend home, stick her in a room and leave for the rest of the day. If possible, plan to have no plans for a significant stretch of time, which will allow your new dog to adjust to you, your family, the home, and her new environment and routine while being left in gradually increasing increments of time. This may mean that you spend your vacation time at home this year, but it will be worth it when you end up with a well-adjusted companion for the next 16 years. Take all the necessary payment and paperwork with you to pick up your new friend. Also remember to bring a leash and collar, the vehicle safety device you will be using, a soft blanket or towel if your passenger will be holding a puppy newly separated from its siblings, a water bowl and extra water if it will be a long trip, and, of course, poop bags.
Calm Crating & Potty Training
When you get home, take the dog to the spot you want her to use for elimination and encourage her to potty. Then, confine the dog in one room with you while you play with her. As she relaxes and becomes curious, gradually increase her range until she has explored the areas of the house where she will be allowed and seems comfortable with the surroundings. This may not all happen on the first day. It is important in the first few days that the dog not be traumatized in her new home, so remind kids that screaming, running through the house and slamming doors are not acceptable. The homecoming day and week should be a calm, peaceful time of adjustment for all involved. Introduce your new dog to her personal space. Dogs need, and instinctively appreciate, a nest or den, whether it’s a blanket, a dog bed or a crate. It’s a place they can go to feel safe and to rest where they won’t be disturbed. It bears repeating that new owners should seriously consider crate training. Research the concept and you will quickly discover the benefits to your sanity, your home, your dog’s safety and your good relationship with your dog. Locate your pooch’s personal space in a quiet, but not isolated, part of the house, away from especially hot, cold or drafty areas. This is where your dog will rest when she can’t be supervised, which may eventually be for extended periods of time while you are at work, so it should be a comfortable place with happy associations. Remember to praise and reward when you are crate training. Your dog’s crate is not a place for punishment, so please take the time to learn how to properly crate train.
The Adventure
You know that a child needs food, water and shelter to survive physically but needs more to thrive mentally and emotionally. A child needs exercise, socialization, mental stimulation and education, discipline, and love and affection. Raising and caring for a dog is not so very different. Remember that simple comparison and you can expect to enjoy many happy, tail-wagging years with your dog.
Routines & Consistency
Now that you have a new, furry family member, keep a consistent routine. Daily walks, consistent potty and meal times, and a schedule of play, socialization, training and rest will convince your dog that he is a member of a stable, well-adjusted pack and encourage him to be stable and well-adjusted as well. Follow through with training for the same reason. “Training becomes a lifetime process,” says Hawley. “The communication that we train [people] to have with their dog – it’s not something you would do just one time or infrequently.” That’s why she points to lack of consistency as the biggest mistake people make in training their dogs. “[The dog] might respond for a while, but when you really need them to come, if you haven’t been training them consistently, they may not come under a strong distraction. But the more consistent you are, the more likely they are to respond to you.” Likewise, be consistent with discipline. Decide before you get your new dog what is acceptable and unacceptable in your home and resolve to stick to those rules. “Sometimes” is not a concept your dog will understand, so stick to “always” or “never.” For example, if you definitely do not want your dog on the couch when guests are over, resolve that the couch is always off limits to him and stick to that. Thinking that you’ll sometimes allow your dog the “treat” of sitting on the couch will only teach him that being on the couch is acceptable. Think long-term when determining the rules of your household. You might think it cute for your four-week-old Great Dane to cuddle with you on the couch, but he will not be that small for long. You need to consider how you will feel about him taking up the entire couch at 160 pounds!
Exercise & Socialization
Anyone who has witnessed the aftermath of a long car trip with young children can understand that you cannot pen that energy and expect that it won’t explode at some point. Dogs, like children, need exercise. Some are content with daily walks and some need vigorous activity like running, swimming or chasing a ball. The difference between a child and your dog is that your dog can’t say, “Mommy, I’m bored,” or ask to go out and play. Save yourself and your dog a lot of frustration and follow through with regular exercise. “When [dogs] get to go out and run around with other dogs,” says Dunakin, “it stimulates the mind and body. It’s a great thing for them.”
The same goes for socialization. Think of those horrible stories of discoveries of children who’ve been locked away in basements for years. Among their many problems are that they can’t relate to other people and are nervous, anxious and even destructive when forced to do so. It is no wonder that a dog who encounters very few people or other dogs and has little experience with the world outside his home and yard frequently becomes aggressive toward people or other dogs and is fearful, nervous and unpredictable in new situations. Socialization is imperative to your dog’s psychological well-being (and to the safety of the people and dogs he might encounter). Untrained and unsocialized dogs clearly become unmanageable. Take your dog out into the world and introduce him to other humans of all ages, races, heights, shapes, to people wearing all kinds of different clothing and doing a variety of activities, to people in wheelchairs, walking with canes or crutches. Introduce him to and allow him to play with all kinds of other dogs as well. Teach him to accept the nail clippers and the electric razor. Take him walking on sidewalks and trails; take him to the beach and the dog-friendly cafe. (The article on page 17 recommends a few dog-friendly area eateries.) Take him on car rides and let him experience fireworks, crowds and the vacuum cleaner. In other words, the more life experience your dog has, the less likely he is to become rattled and unpredictable when presented with a new situation such as an unfamiliar child or a jogger passing by on the sidewalk.
Exercise, socialization, training, discipline and affection are all part of the adventure of owning a dog. Explore the world with your canine companion and enjoy helping him discover his skills and capabilities. Watching his personality develop and knowing that you helped shape it is just one of the many joys of sharing your life with a dog. The loyalty and licks you’ll be rewarded with are priceless!