8 Things to Know Before Getting Your First Dog

Before you go get your first dog, there's a lot you should know about dog ownership and dogs in general so you can make the best choice possible, both for you and your future dog.

Dogs are wonderful companions. You can share secrets with your dog, and she will never tell a soul. You can be happy, sad, tired, or even cranky with your dog, and she will still love you just as much. Dogs don’t care what we look like, how much money
we make, or what kind of car we drive.

They love us just the way we are. A dog can be the best friend you’ve ever had, but that only happens when you choose the right dog for you—the right breed (or mixture of breeds), as well as the right sex, age, and temperament. Owning a dog requires a commitment to support and care for the dog throughout her lifetime, usually fourteen to sixteen years. Caring for a dog requires your time and, certainly, some of your money. In addition, adding a dog to your family may require you to make some changes to your lifestyle. So, before you go get a dog, let’s take a look at both dog ownership and dogs in general so you can make the best choice possible, both for you and your future dog.

Things I wish I’d known before getting my first dog

No other single species on the planet has more variety in size and shape than the species of domesticated dogs, Canis familiaris. You’ll find everything from tiny 2-pound lap dogs to 200-pound live- stock protection dogs, from dogs with extremely short muzzles to those with elegant long noses, and from those with squat, sturdy bodies and short legs made for power to those with long legs and bodies made for running. There are dogs with no hair and dogs with lots of coat. Some dogs are friendly and social, while others are wary, cautious, and protective. The variables are tremendous.

Choosing the right dog for you and your family should be a carefully thought out decision, not an impulse buy based on little or no research. That puppy in the pet store window may be cute, on what a wonderful dog you have! However, a dog is also a responsibility that you will need to take seriously because this dog is dependent on you for everything.

1. Who will be living with the dog?

Do you live alone? If so, then the decision whether to add a dog to your household is entirely up to you. No one can argue with you about your choice, but at the same time, you will be solely responsible for caring for the dog. Can you do it by yourself? It’s a big commitment.

A dog with his family. DogDelite.com

If you live with other people—roommates or your family—you all need to talk about getting a dog. Everyone needs to be happy with the idea of adding a dog to the household. If someone is unhappy about this decision, he could take out that displeasure on the dog. Even if he isn’t blatantly mean to the dog, the dog will know that this person dislikes her, which could result in behavior problems from the dog.

If you have children, you will need to choose the right breed of dog (and the correct individual dog), as not all dogs are patient and tolerant enough for kids. You also will have to be able to spend time with both the kids and the dog so that the dog learns proper, respectful behavior around children. Without guidance, the dog (especially a young puppy) will think of the kids as fellow playmates (littermates) and will jump on them, bite, nip, and steal their food and toys, and could easily become a tyrant rather than a good friend. If the dog will be living with senior citizens, it is important to choose a breed and an individual dog that is calmer, less apt to paw and scratch fragile skin, and less likely to jump up and potentially knock someone down. Young puppies can be a lot of work, so for many seniors, adopting an older puppy or an adult dog is often the better choice.

If you have other pets, be aware that not all dogs are friendly with other dogs, and some are not trustworthy with other animals, including horses, cats, rabbits, and ferrets. You’ll need to take this into consideration when you choose your new dog.

2. Do you have time for a dog?

If you have never owned a dog, at least as an adult, you may not understand how much time a dog requires. Dogs are companion animals; that means they are happiest while spending time with their people.

Walking a dog takes time. Do you have enough?

When isolated for hours at a time, day after day, many dogs develop bad behaviors (bark- ing, digging, destructive chewing) out of loneliness and boredom. If you live alone and work long hours every day, don’t get a dog, unless you have a neighbor who will help you. If he or she will take your dog out a couple of times each day for a potty break, a walk, and a play session, then dog ownership might work. If a neighbor is not available, you might want to check into hiring a professional dog walker or taking the dog to doggy daycare. But look into these services before you get a dog, as they can be expensive. Otherwise, you might be better off with a pet who doesn’t require your companionship. Puppies and newly adopted adult dogs need time to bond with their new owners. Bonding is the deep commitment felt between a dog and her owner. It’s a sense of responsibility toward each other, and it doesn’t happen automatically; a bond takes time to form. During the first few weeks and even months that your dog lives with you, it’s important to spend several hours each day with her so that this bond can develop.

Your new dog also will need some training, and that, too, takes time. Your new dog will need to learn all about house training and household rules, as well as proper social behavior. You also will need to schedule time to exercise and play with your dog and to groom her. As your dog grows up, you may want to participate in dog activities and sports. Those, too, take time.

3. Will you enjoy life with a dog?

Adding a dog to your life will change your life. For some people, it changes drastically. You will need to dog-proof your home because a dog’s tail can clear a coffee table of knickknacks in one wag. Puppies and young dogs like to chew and do not discriminate between leather chew toys and leather shoes. You will have to learn to put things away, close closet doors, and put up baby gates to head off trouble. Teaching a dog what is allowed to be touched and what isn’t takes time, and during that time you’ll need to prevent problems.

You’ll have to dog-proof the backyard, too, by putting away tools and making sure that the kids keep their toys cleaned up, because those could easily become attractive chew toys. Also, keep in mind that dogs dig, so if you have a favorite garden, you’ll want to put a fence around it.

Girl running with her dog.

A dog, and especially a puppy, may try your patience time and again. You can’t lose your temper; that is never effective, and it won’t help your dog learn. Instead, you’ll have to learn to control your emotions when problems happen and learn how to train your dog effectively.

Life with a dog isn’t all problems, though. Dogs are great social icebreakers. It’s almost impossible to go for a walk without stopping to talk about your dog with at least one person. If you have a puppy, you’ll be stopped even more because puppies are cute. Floppy ears, big eyes, and a wagging tail are irresistible.

It has been medically proven time and again that laughter is good for us. It helps us mentally and physically, releasing endorphins that make us feel better and lift our spirits. Dogs are great for making us laugh. Clumsy puppies are always doing something funny, from tripping over their own paws to discovering the fun of new toys. Dogs can make us laugh and often will do so on purpose.

Enjoying life with a dog by getting a big sloppy kiss.

Researchers have found that owning a dog is good for us. Petting a dog elevates our mental outlook (brightens our mood) and lowers our blood pressure. Several studies have shown that heart attack victims who owned dogs had a much longer survival rate than those who didn’t own dogs.

Dog owners may be more active, going for walks with their dogs; or perhaps these positive results are simply due to dog owners laughing more often. Dog owners may have more social interaction with other people, which is healthier than social isolation. Personally, I think dogs help us feel needed, wanted, and loved, and that’s enough motivation for most people to fight illness or injury.

4. Where do you live?

You can share your life with a dog just about anywhere; dogs are very adaptable. They can live in mansions or bungalows, in condos or high-rises. Dogs love big yards with room to run but can learn to live with several daily walks and no yard. If you want to share your life with a dog, you can make it work. Some situations just require a little more commitment from you to make them work well.

When you add a dog to your life, your living space becomes your dog’s living space, too. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a 4,000-square-foot house or a 550-square-foot apartment; your dog will be with you, underfoot, simply because that’s where she wants to be. Although most giant- breed dogs are not as active as smaller breeds, they still take up space. If you have a large house, a Great Dane sprawled across the living room floor is not going to seem nearly as large as one sharing a tiny apartment.

It's hard to be an Adult Dog stock photo 85415ec4-ec4f-4474-b679 ...

Your dog is going to track dirt and dead leaves into your home, and she will probably bring in muddy toys and half-chewed sticks. If you’re lucky, she may even bring in the gopher she caught in the backyard. Most dogs shed, especially in the spring and fall, and will be more than willing to share their lovely coats with you, all over the house. Your dog may leave puddles of drool on the floor and may splash her drinking water from wall to wall.
A yard can definitely make keeping a dog easier. Without a yard, you will need to walk your dog several times each day so that she can relieve herself, including first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Bad weather is no excuse; dogs need to go outside, rain, snow, sleet, or shine! A yard also makes playing with your dog easier, especially if you don’t want her roughhousing. Daily play sessions are great for bonding with your dog and can be great exercise. If you don’t have a yard, you will need to walk your dog, jog with her, or find a safe place where she can run and play.

No matter where you live, you probably have neighbors. They may live very close or farther away, but they are there. What will your neighbors think about your new dog? Although you may think that your dog is none of their business, she certainly will be if she is annoying or poorly trained. To be a good neighbor, let neighbors know that you’re bringing home a new dog and ask them to let you know if your dog is being annoying before a problem develops and before they get angry.

5. Can you afford a dog?

It’s not polite to discuss finances—especially a personal budget—but this is something you need to talk about before you add a dog to your family. Dogs can be expensive. For the first year of your dog’s life, it may seem like money is disappearing from your wallet faster than you can replace it.

EXPENSELOW COSTHIGH COST
Cost of puppy from a breeder$500$2,000
Cost of dog from a shelter$50$200
Initial supplies$100$200
First vet exam, including vaccinations and worming$100$100
Second and third vaccinations and exam during each visit$100$150
Spaying and neutering, depending on the dog’s size$125$200
Microchipping, heartworm preventative, and miscellaneous vet costs$100$200
Local licensing$20$30
A year’s worth of high-quality food and treats$500$1,000
Grooming supplies, including flea and tick prevention$100$100
Kindergarten training class$75$100
Cleaning supplies$20$40
TOTAL FIRST YEAR EXPENSES:$1,790$4,320
The total expenses you can expect your first year of dog ownership.

This list covers only the basics. Even if you manage to get the lowest rates listed above, you’re looking at a minimum of $1,800. If you need to build a new fence, shore up an existing one, or build a dog run, your expenses will increase.

This doesn’t include an emergency room visit, either, should your puppy hurt herself or eat something she shouldn’t have eaten. I have a Springer Doodle that tore a tendon her in hind leg when she was a six-month old puppy, resulting in a surgery which cost over $3,200.

Accidents, injuries, and unforeseen expenses happen. So, before you get a new dog, make sure your budget can handle it. You should have at least $5,000 budgeted away for unforeseen expenses.


6. Can You Legally Keep a Dog?

You may think that owning a dog is one of your inalienable rights—one of those rights no one can take away. But that’s not necessarily so. If you own your home, do you belong to a homeowners’ association? What are its regulations concerning dogs? Many associations limit how many dogs may live in each home or have rules concern- ing the size of dogs allowed.If you rent, does your rental contract allow dog ownership? In most states, landlords can legally forbid dog ownership. If they do allow pets, they can limit how many pets may be in the home, the sizes, and even which types (such as forbidding dogs or rep- tiles). Some cities, counties, states, and even countries have outlawed certain breeds of dogs, and some insurance companies will not insure you if you own particular breeds. Before you get a dog, do some research and find out if you can legally keep one.

7. What does your future hold?

The Future

None of us has mastered the ability to see into the future, but most of us have plans or goals of what we would like to accomplish. What are yours? Will a dog fit into those plans ten, twelve, and even fourteen years into the future?

Dogs come in all sizes, from very tiny to very large, from lap dogs to guard dogs, and everything in between. Margaret, an English Mastiff, owned by Arnie Peller; and Gordan, a Pug, owned by Sheri Wachtstetter.

People who do purebred dog rescue and those who work in shelters hear the same stories day after day: “My kids wanted the dog but have now left for college, and we don’t have the time (or the desire) to care for the dog anymore.” Or, “I got the dog while I was going to school, and now I have a job and can’t care for her anymore.”

Before you add a dog to your family, try to take a look forward in time. What do you plan to be doing in ten years? Where? Will a dog fit into those plans?

8. Dogs Come in All Sizes, Shapes, and Temperaments

No other single species on the planet has more variety in size and shape than the species of domesticated dogs, Canis familiaris. You’ll find everything from tiny 2-pound lap dogs to 200-pound livestock protection dogs, from dogs with extremely short muzzles to those with elegant long noses, and from those with squat, sturdy bodies and short legs made for power to those with long legs and bodies made for running. There are dogs with no hair and dogs with lots of coat. Some dogs are friendly and social, while others are wary, cautious, and protective.

The variables are tremendous. Choosing the right dog for you and your family should be a carefully thought out decision, not an impulse buy based on little or no research. That puppy in the pet store window may be cute, but do you know anything about her? The Neapolitan Mastiff in the Harry Potter movies has a unique look, but would that breed really fit into your lifestyle?

Unfortunately, many people do far more research when they buy a new refrigerator than they do when adding a dog to the family.

Before deciding on a breed, it’s important that the breeds characteristics match what you’re looking for and will meld smoothly into your family’s lifestyle. That’s exactly what we cover in Part Two on Picking The Right Breed by Personality & Traits.

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