First Steps to Dog Ownership

posted: 02/09/13
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Make sure you are buying from a reputable person or organization.

So, you want to get a dog. But where to start, you may ask. There are numerous ways to find the perfect dog, but the first step in the process is research. Not only do you want to find the best place to buy that bundle of joy, but you want to uncover what breed or collection of breeds -- in the case of a mixed breed -- is best for you and your lifestyle. (You might want to read more about the different breeds and take our breed selector quiz in the Dog Breed Directory.)

Once you figure out what kind of dog you'd like, the work is just beginning. Don't fall in love with the first little critter your eye falls upon. Make sure you are buying from a reputable person or organization -- after all buying a puppy or adopting an adult dog is a commitment you don't want to regret.

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Brandy Baker/The Oakland Press/Associated Press

If you have your eye on a specific breed of dog, and you've done the proper research to ensure that you can handle all its behavioral and physical tendencies -- including shedding and exercise needs -- your best bet would be to visit a breeder. Some people feel that dog breeders are a big part of the pet overpopulation problem, in that a breeder's overstock just ends up in shelters or pet stores. However, reputable breeders are very concerned with the welfare of their litters. They will try to find good homes for the puppies, and sometimes even raise unsold dogs themselves.

Caring breeders usually require that buyers sign an official contract. It helps to educate the new owner as to the puppy's needs, and it typically includes clauses that forbid further dog breeding without the breeder's permission; forbid the puppy's sale, abandonment or transfer of ownership; ensure the puppy's spaying or neutering; and offer a return or refund if the pup either develops a hereditary illness or disease within the first year, of if the new owner can no longer care for him. The American Kennel Club, your veterinarian or your local animal shelter can provide a list of reputable breeders.

Before you visit any breeder, it's a good idea to prepare yourself with a list of questions.

Questions to Ask a Breeder

- What breeds are prone to hip dysplasia? (Bernese mountain dog, German shepherd, golden retriever, Rottweiler or Saint Bernard)

- Are the puppy's parents certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals?

- How well did the puppy's parents score on the hip dysplasia evaluation of the PennHip (University of Pennsylvania hip improvement program)?

- Have the dogs been socialized with dogs, humans and the normal sounds and sights of home life? (A conscientious breeder will provide pups with good living conditions where they can interact.)

- If possible, arrange to meet the litter's parents -- the breeder ideally should keep the mother or both parents with the litter until the puppies are past the weaning stage and are well-socialized. If the parents are not well-adjusted, their behavior and attitudes may have been imprinted on the impressionable puppies.

- Are the dogs' living conditions clean and well-maintained?

- Does the dog's temperament match what you're looking for? Overt aggressiveness or meekness are red flags.

You should expect an inspection yourself. Remember that upstanding breeders will have a discerning eye as well -- the pups are more than products and profits to them -- so be prepared to answer some questions about yourself and your intended commitment to your new family member. Breeders should be able to supply you with a good deal of information regarding the proper care and upbringing of your puppy.

Any reputable breeder will have official, documented proof of the puppies' immunization and pedigree records. Ask to see them. You'll also get a copy to bring home with the pup. Take the immunization record to your veterinarian so she can start a medical file right away.

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Pet Shops
Jeff Robbins/Associated Press

Many people stroll through malls, glance up at just the right moment, and fall in love with a cat, bird, dog, or even an iguana in the pet-store window. While pet shops are a great place to buy food, toys and other pet-related essentials, they are not your best bet for a four-legged friend.

Many pet stores do get their puppy stock from reputable breeders, but there are stores that buy their furry inventory from puppy mills. Breeding dogs en masse for profit (and not much else), puppy mills usually keep dogs in vile, inhumane conditions, with cages crammed together, no socialization of dogs with each other or with humans, and poor cleaning and feeding conditions. These circumstances do not produce well-adjusted dogs. Puppy-mill dogs are often in poor health and tend to be nervous, distrustful and hard to train, and may develop behavior problems that can never be overcome, even by the most patient, loving owner.

Pet stores tend to regard dogs as "merchandise," but these outfits don't always have a return policy or other guarantees in case you have taken home an unhealthy dog. Some stores, however, have arrangements with local animal shelters to display and find homes for shelter dogs. The care the animals receive in these stores is comparable to that of a shelter -- generally higher than in most pet shops -- and in return for their effort, the stores benefit from selling food, toys and other essentials to the adoptive family. Before you buy your puppy from a pet store, ask the store manager who supplies the animals -- and insist on documented proof.

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Shelters and Humane Societies
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A shelter or your local humane society can be good places to find a dog to suit your needs. The range of choices will be large -- young or mature, furry or sleek, big or small, or any of the other criteria important to you. But it's best to visit a shelter only after you have a good sense of what you are looking for.

Many dogs come with a history, and if they know it, the shelter staff will be happy to share with you. For example, if they know a dog has been abandoned or abused, they can pretty much tell you what you are getting and explain the behavioral problems you may have to overcome.

- Ask the staff enough about the dog to make sure that he will fit well into your life.

- If you have other pets at home, ask if the new dog has ever lived with other animals and how he is doing in the shelter.

- If you have youngsters, take them with you to help choose the dog.

- Check that the dog you are bringing home is in good health and has had his shots on time. There is nothing more heartbreaking than bringing home a puppy from a shelter, only to discover soon afterward that he has come down with a preventable but fatal disease such as distemper or parvovirus.

- Check into the possible breed-related conditions, such as the skin allergies of the West Highland white terriers, to which your dog may be prone.

Don't rush through the selection process. It will take an hour, maybe more, for you to cover all the bases. Hold off on falling in love with your dog until you're sure that everything has been checked and double-checked, and that you are right for one another.

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The Veterinarian Connection

With their many clients, and their associations with breeders' groups, kennels and shelters, veterinarians are very well-connected in the dog-adoption community. If a client's dog gives birth to a litter of puppies, if someone is looking to find a good home for a dog they can no longer keep, or if there's a friendly stray in the neighborhood, a vet is usually one of the first people to get wind of it. The bulletin board in a veterinarian's office can be an excellent source of information if you want to bring a dog into the family.

A vet can also help you select a dog -- matching your needs and expectations with the known behavioral and health issues of any breeds you're considering. Make sure that the vet examines your new pet for physical and emotional problems as soon as possible.

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Taking in a Stray
Danielle Smith/Associated Press

Every year, thousands of dogs are abandoned or born from unplanned litters. Some will be turned in to shelters, but many will die of starvation, accidents or abuse. While it is noble to take in a stray dog, you should know beforehand what you're getting yourself into.

First, make sure the dog is not just lost.

- Post flyers.

- Check the lost and found section of local and community papers.

- Call shelters to see if any dogs have been reported missing.

- Look for a tattoo on the dog's inner thigh -- this is either a breeder's marking, which can help identify the dog's origin, or an identification number linked to a national registry that would have the owner's name on file.

- Ask your vet or the shelter if they can scan the dog for an identifying microchip.

Once you're assured that the dog is safe to adopt, take him to the vet for a full checkup. Isolate him from other pets until you're sure he's fine. You can even start his training during this time. Once everything checks out, you can take the pooch into your home -- and your heart.

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