Don’t make a decision based on free time at home during quarantine, says U of M Extension veterinarian.
Dr. Joe Armstrong usually focuses on the wellness and care of agricultural livestock animals in his role with Extension. Many families have been asking if having extra time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic makes this a good time to get a puppy. Here is his advice for making that decision and planning the early days of puppy ownership.
1. Be realistic
- Be honest with yourself about how a pup will fit into your life and how much time you truly have. The extra time you may have now might not be possible in the future.
- Ask how you picture your puppy as an adult dog. What do you want them to be able to do? Can you commit to the training needed to achieve that goal?
- Consult with a veterinarian. Even before you own the pup. Veterinarians appreciate it when they see someone planning ahead rather than making spur of the moment decisions. Your veterinarian can help you prepare and point you toward validated resources.
2. Make a financially informed decision
Free dogs are never actually free. There are recurring costs for every dog, not to mention the potential for emergency medical procedures. The cost of the dog can vary widely, but you will need to spend money to be a responsible owner.
- Expect to spend around $1,200 for adoption fees, equipment (leash, collar, kennel, food bowl, toys), puppy vaccines, and spay or neuter surgery. Adoption fees vary widely.
- Plan on $80-$120 per month to cover preventive medications, food and toys.
- Your dog should see the veterinarian for a physical exam and vaccinations yearly. Plan to spend $200-$500.
- At least one emergency visit will happen for most owners. A surgery to retrieve something that should not have been eaten, for example, can cost $2,000-$5,000. Save for this possibility or consider pet insurance.
3. Pick a breeder, not a puppy, first
If you choose to get a puppy from a breeder, picking a puppy from a litter is the wrong way to look at the process.
- Start with picking the right breed for your lifestyle. Some breeds need a great deal of exercise and some are content to lie around most of the day. Read as much as you can, talk to the breeder, ask to meet adult dogs from the breeder and consult your veterinarian to help make the right choice.
- Concentrate on finding the right breeder, one that you feel comfortable with and trust. Look for a responsible breeder who can produce healthy litters with consistent, predictable results.
- Your choice of puppy can be based on personal preference. After finding the right breeder, you can choose from the litter based on sex, color and cuteness.
- If the breeder requires a contract, ask your veterinarian about the requirements to make sure they are in agreement with standard of care.
4. Adopting a dog
Many people choose to adopt an animal from a shelter or other organization. This is a great option for many families.
- Adopted dogs often have an unknown history. Shelters and rescue organizations try as hard as they can to narrow down the breed, health and behavior for each dog, but they can’t know everything.
- Many shelter dogs are healthy and well behaved, but there is the risk of health complications or behavioral issues due to an unknown history.
5. Puppies can learn right away
Some books or websites may tell you to wait to train your puppy, but that’s not current advice.
- Puppies can begin training right away. An 8-week-old puppy can be taught any number of commands right out of the gate.
- The first 6 months are the most critical part of training. What your new pup learns before 6 months — the good and the bad — will stick.
- Every interaction is training. While formalized training sessions teach specific commands, the training that occurs in everyday interaction with your pup is just as, if not more, important.
- Some actions are cute when a tiny puppy does them, but consider whether it would still be as cute if an 85-pound dog was jumping, biting, playing tug-of-war with your sweatshirt sleeve and sitting on the furniture. Accepted behaviors won’t magically disappear just because the dog grows up.
- Dogs have no idea how big they are. Large breed dogs often get more training because the consequences of not having that training are too high to be ignored, but small dogs behaving aggressively can cause harm too. Hold small dogs accountable and train them like you would a large dog.
6. Dogs learn by association
Dogs learn by associating actions. Remember Pavlov’s dog? Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed the dog. Eventually, just ringing the bell could cause the dog to drool even without food present.
- This is how we teach commands. The word “sit” means nothing until we can teach the pup what action should be associated with the word.
- The bridge to help the pup know what action they should associate with the command is the reward (treat or affection).
- Keep in mind that this can work against you as well if you are not careful. If your pup associates jumping on you with getting petted, they have now learned that jumping equals petting.
- Dominance and the “alpha” mentality are not helpful when training a dog. Sometimes it is recommended to take the food bowl away from an eating pup to show you are in charge. This only teaches the dog a negative association with hands and people coming towards their food bowl. Instead, present an even higher value item (small piece of hot dog or cheese) to the pup while they are eating to show that hands and people around the food bowl are good.
Provide your new pup with so many good experiences in the world that any bad experiences they do have will be outnumbered.
- This includes interactions with people, places and pets.
- Never try to pass your dog off as a service dog, but find appropriate ways to take your pup into the world wherever you can.
- If part of your goals include teaching responsibility for family pets to a young person in your household, consider having that child join 4-H. The 4-H dog project offers social, learning and training, and competitive opportunities for your child and dog.
8. Positive reinforcement – Affection is a reward
A kind word of encouragement and a scratch of the chin are not just ways to bond, but they are also rewards similar to a treat. The best way to train a dog is through positive reinforcement of desired actions.
- Reward wanted behavior and ignore unwanted behavior.
- For example, comforting whining or barking with petting or your voice rewards the action with attention. The association in your dog’s mind becomes whining or barking equals attention.
- Punishing or disciplining a dog is a difficult way to create an association and can often be counterproductive.
9. The kennel is your friend
Kennels are not cruel or inhumane. When trained, many dogs actually seek out this comfortable, safe space of their own.
- Left unsupervised, puppies can get into all sorts of trouble, causing damage or putting themselves in life-threatening situations.
- Early on, provide positive associations with the kennel. A Kong toy full of peanut butter in the kennel is one way.
- Your pup should have just enough room to turn around. A kennel that is too big will encourage your pup to use one end as the bathroom.
- If you don’t use the kennel regularly with your adult dog, it may be helpful when traveling or after any medical treatments.
10. Potty training
Potty training is all about routine.
- To know roughly how many hours a pup can go before needing to go out, take their age in months and add one hour (a 16-week or 4-month puppy can usually go a maximum of five hours before needing to go out).
- Usually, within the first week together with your pup you will start to notice body language that indicates when it’s time to head outside.
- Your new pup will very likely pee in your house. Do not discipline the pup for this action. This will only create an association between liquid on the floor and fear, rather than an understanding that peeing in the house is bad. Instead, calmly take the pup outside right away.
- Reward them with attention and treats when they use the correct location.