Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Dog Dilemna

I knew when my sweet Kiera passed away just before Christmas that it wouldn't be long before I turned my attention to finding a new dog for our family.  I'm a dog person...always have been, always will be....and to me a house without a dog just isn't home.  (Yes, we still had a dog - my husband's papillon - but she is very bonded to my husband, and she thinks she is a cat.  That first fact makes the situation unfair for the girls and I, and the second...well....)  Truth be told, I had been browsing various rescue and breeder websites for quite some time...preparing for the inevitable and, yes, trying to ignore my grief over watching my beloved dog age. 

Kiera and I in the spring of 1997.
When she passed in December, my heart was well and truly broken.

And yet....I had hope because I knew it wouldn't always be so, and I knew that some day someone new would come along.  No dog could ever replace my Kiera, but there would be a new beginning.

The trick is in figuring out when the time is right.  My husband was quite correct to have put his foot down and said no for the first month after Kiera's passing.  I was too raw, and my grief too strong....stronger than I had expected because I thought I had prepared myself.   I knew I needed to wait until I stopped looking for Kiera around the house and that I needed to be able to remember Kiera with smiles, and not tears.  Sean made sure I kept a clear head until both of those things happened, and I'm very grateful to him for that!
However, once both of those bars had been passed, the house became unbearably empty.  (I know that statement is somewhat ridiculous, coming from a happy home with two children, two cats and a wee papillon....but it's true.)    It was time to get serious and start looking.
At the time, a friend of mine was also in the process of searching for a family pet.  She asked me for some advice, and when our conversation was over she suggested I write a post about how to find the perfect dog. 
So here it is!
Growing up as I did - the daughter of a veterinarian - I have some very strong beliefs about pet ownership and the responsibility that holds.  It's a lifetime commitment, and one that bears a great deal of thought and discussion.  It is essential to take into consideration the needs of each and every family member as well as the potential needs of your new pet in order to establish a successful relationship between family and pet. 

First and foremost:  Owning a dog (or any pet) is not a right, it's a privilege.  If you don't have the time, energy, resources and finances to support a pet than you shouldn't have one.  I know that sounds harsh, but it really is that simple  If you have never had type of pet you are interested in you need to do your research to make sure you fully understand the cost and care that the pet will require - including both regular and emergency vet care and training, and covering each and every stage of an animal's life.

Assuming you've done that, you need to figure out exactly what you want!  Here are the things I recommend that people take into consideration.

1.  Dog size:
This should be the absolute first thing you consider.
Are you a big dog person or a little dog person?  What type of space do you live in?  Do you have the type of space appropriate for the size of dog that you want?  How many other pets do you have and is your space appropriate for one more?  Do you have a yard?  Fence? Access to parks or trails for walking?  Do you know how size influences a dog's personality?  Do you understand that larger breeds have shorter lifespans and vice versa?
I personally tend to be a medium-largish dog person.  My one exception is that I absolutely adore West Highland White Terriers.  However, for reasons that I will mention later a Westie simply wasn't a possibility.  I wanted a larger dog because I appreciate the sense of safety and security you get just by having that larger dog in the home. I also wanted an exercise buddy that would force me into a constant routine.  Besides, much as we love our papillon, smaller dogs can be fragile...and with rough and tumble children I wanted a dog that could be rough and tumble with them!

2.  Dog age.
Most people automatically assume puppy....but there are some really wonderful things about adopting an older dog.  Here are just a few of the pros and cons of both.
Puppy pros:  super-cute!, high energy, blank slate, can adapt easily, train as you like, it's fun to watch them grow up and develop, did I mention super-cute?!
Puppy cons: super high energy, need obedience training, need to be housebroken, will keep you up at nights, often chew on lots of stuff, pretty needy, depending on breed can take a while to mature.
Older dog pros: tend to be calmer, often come partially or fully trained in obedience, often are already housebroken, know what you're getting in terms of size, personality and behavior, mature
Older dog cons: can potentially have behavioral problems and/or emotional issues relating to their past, sometimes have health problems, don't get to share your life with them as long
This was actually one of our easier decisions.  I adored Kiera, but she was about a year old when I adopted her and it quickly became clear that her earlier days had been traumatic.  She was worth every single minute of the work I put into her....but it was a solid three years of focused work to help her get past whatever had been done to her, and with two young children I just can't do that right now.  To be honest, I also wanted the girls to have that puppy experience as well.

3.  Purebred v. Mutt
Six of one, half a dozen of another. 
While you will hear from some quarters that mutts have fewer health problems...but that's not necessarily true if you find a reputable breeder.  The dearth of breed specific rescues renders the 'you should only adopt' argument moot....especially as with many of the breeds you can be 100% sure you are getting  a purebred through such rescues.  Sure, mutts are fabulous if all you are wanting is a are purebreds.  For every argument pro one side or the other I can give you a matching counterpoint.
This is personal preference...and the next issue is actually more important.
Honest to goodness, my personal preference is for a purebred, but this was lower on my priority list.
Not much else to say about that!

4.  What Breed?
Here's where things get truly personal.  
Please, PLEASE!!! do some research.  Different breeds have very different personalities, and what works for one family may or may not work for you.  For example, a dog with strong herding instincts may not be the best choice for a family with small children.  I could list many, many examples...but this is getting long enough as it is!  Dogs are frequently surrendered to rescue - or returned after a failed adoption - because of what amounts to an avoidable personality conflict because the humans didn't understand the specific personality traits of the dog's DNA.  This holds true for both purebreds AND mutts.   (Most animal rescue folk and/or vets can at least provide a good guess as to the genetic make-up of a mutt, giving you no excuse to skip the research!)
I LOVE Westies (as I mentioned) and I LOVE Labs and I LOVE Brittany Spaniels.
I'm also pretty cool with pitts, rotts, terriers and pugs.
I like - but know better than to get - several varieties of working dogs.
What I don't care for so much are boxers, poodles, hounds, chihuahuas, or small decorative puff balls.
At the end of the day, I know what works for me...and what doesn't work for me.  This time around, though, I based much of my decision on what my girls needed...and that was a happy-go-lucky lab... AKA, the perfect family dog.

5.  Breeder v. Rescue: 
I may get into trouble for saying this publicly, but I am a supporter of responsible breeders and I believe whole heartedly that if you are a family who wants a very specific breed you have every right to find a breeder.  (The trick being you must do your due diligence and find a responsible breeder.  Our state is notorious for puppy mills, and that is a deplorable practice that must be stopped.  So NO pet store puppies and no puppy mills!!!)  You can find information about how to go through the process here

I'll go a step really makes me angry when people get on their high horse and start preaching that you HAVE to adopt a shelter dog.  I mentioned on FB that I was starting to think through what we wanted to do and I pretty immediately had people start to try to influence my decision in that direction - some gently, some not so.  I also have friends who hesitate to tell you where their wonderful puppies have come from because they have so often been given so much crap over having used a breeder.  It's irritating and offensive.

As with everything else, there are some legitimate reasons to go either way. Please respect that YOUR decision may not be someone else's decision on this sensitive topic.
Breed specific rescues are a great compromise if you are struggling to decide where to get your pet - especially if you want a purebred.  Be warned, however, that they often have very high adoption fees and/or that they can be very selective about where they place their animals.  Remember that Westie I wanted?  The MO Westie rescue won't place in a home with children under the age of 8 because of typical terrier behavior...and they are four times more expensive than our local shelter.  Having said that, the benefit of those stringent placement rules is that they do a great job of putting dogs in homes that are good for the dog and the humans.
When it came right down to it, we chose to go through the Central MO Humane Society (my preferred rescue organization in our area) for two reasons.  First, they had exactly what we wanted..and I do mean EXACTLY.  I wanted a black lab (or lab mix) puppy with an outgoing personality that didn't show any signs of either aggression or fearfulness.  Check, check and check!  Two, the price was right.  Adoption fees at CMHS are a fraction of what a purchase price would be from a reputable breeder.  True, I could have saved up for a purebred...but I didn't want to wait that long!
So there you have long-winded opinions on how to pick your next pup.
And now I'm going to go snuggle with my Winston, who is now about a year old and is just about the best dog I've ever known.

 Winston and I on the day we fell in love!

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