Owning a dog calls for common sense and adaptability

Defining common sense dog ownership

Carl and Mary Jones have two dogs and no kids. Cloud is a mixed German Shepherd they got for free from a co-worker at Carl's company and Silver is a purebred Samoyed purchased from a newspaper ad. Both intact males, the dogs get along well and have good manners. Although the dogs spend a lot of time outside — the Joneses both work long hours — they get walks most mornings and spend the evening and overnight in the house.

Roger Martin has a Golden Retriever in his garden apartment. He purchased Amber as a 10-week-old puppy and carefully cleaned up after her until she was housetrained. Amber stayed in a crate while Roger was at work until she was past her chewing stage, and now she stays in the kitchen behind a baby gate until he gets home for dinner. Roger hasn't taken her to the veterinarian for her shots or heartworm test this year because money is tight, but he feeds her well and she seems happy and energetic.

Linda and Robert Barnes adopted Border Collie Shep from a rescue group. Shep is driving them nuts with his non-stop type-A personality. He'll play ball until Linda can't take it anymore, then bug Robert to take over. Linda and Robert talk about sending Shep back to the rescue, but they haven't come to a decision yet.

Each of these dog owners could be considered “irresponsible” in some fashion. Many people consider it irresponsible to keep a dog intact; to leave dogs outside for long periods; to keep large, energetic dogs in an apartment; to keep a dog in a crate for long hours; to skip routine veterinary care; to make a bad choice of a breed; or to consider giving up a dog because of that bad choice.

But the issue is not one of responsibility or lack thereof; it is a matter of finding the best way to develop and nurture a bond with a canine companion, even if that relationship does not fit an outsider's perspective of “responsible dog ownership.”

Common sense

The lament is often made that common sense isn't very common these days, but it is still the ticket to dispelling ignorance and solving problems, even dog problems.

The foundation of a good relationship with a dog is the making of a few common sense decisions. Each family that has or wants a dog must determine the position that dog will have in the household and the interaction it will have with family members, neighbors, and strangers. If people and dogs adapt well to the circumstances set up by those decisions, the relationship works. If they do not adapt well, the relationship may need repair. The decisions, adaptations, and amendments in this relationship serve the same purpose as decisions, adaptations, and amendments in any other relationship — to make it work for the benefit of all concerned.

Common sense decisions

The first and perhaps most important decision is to carefully select a breed or mix of dog that is most likely to fit into the family temperament and lifestyle. Fortunately, there are many breeds to choose from, and there is at least one to fit every situation. There are breeds that are predisposed to retrieve, to guard, to pull sleds or carts, to snuggle, and to lie by the hearth. There are active breeds and calm breeds. There are breeds to satisfy the desire to comb long strands of silky hair and breeds that require only an occasional rubdown to keep coats healthy. There are breeds that can withstand cold climates and breeds that can cope with hot, muggy temperatures. There are breeds that love children and can put up with a toddler's teasing, poking, and pulling and a 10-year-old's rough-housing.

To help make the decision of a breed, look for books such as these at the library or bookstore or buy one or two directly from Amazon::

Check out the breed origin, for knowing where and why a breed was developed helps to understand its character and physical attributes. For example, breeds developed to

(Help in choosing a breed)

Once the breed is selected, the buyer should read the breed standard to learn about the physical characteristics that make the dog a member of that breed. Breed standards are available on the AKC website. Then begin the search for a breeder who produces puppies that fit the breed's physical and attitude description as presented in the standard. Choosing a puppy that has the name of the breed but not the appearance and character negates the vast amount of work to get to this point. Why bother reading and studying about breeds just to buy a puppy that is a Labrador Retriever in name only?

To find a breeder, contact a local veterinarian, groomer, or kennel or obedience club for a referral, check ads in the AKC Gazette or the United Kennel Club's Bloodlines magazine, browse the AKC website for a list of breed clubs, or surf the Internet for a breed club website.

(Help in finding a responsible breeder)

Once the puppy comes home, there are many other decisions to be made, but they can all be approached with common sense and made to fit your personal biases, budget, and life circumstances.

The decision to spay or neuter is often at the top of the list. Sterilization surgery is often cited as the demarcation between “responsible” and “irresponsible” dog ownership, but that is a political and moral judgment, not a practical one.

Sterilization has many advantages: spayed bitches never drop estrus fluids on the carpet or unwanted litters in the closet, don't develop reproductive cancers or uterine infections, and don't require management skills to separate them from male dogs, and castrated male dogs don't get testicular cancer, macho attitudes, or stud dog wanderlust. In some communities, licenses for sterilized dogs may cost considerably less than licenses for intact dogs. However, if a family wants to keep a dog intact, exercises common sense precautions to prevent unwanted litters, and understands the risks of infection and cancer, they should not be considered “irresponsible.”

(More on spay or neuter)

Close on the heels of the decision to spay or neuter is the decision to breed. This one requires at least as much care as the selection of a breed, for the determination to bring more puppies into the world should be based on more than wanting the kids to see the miracle of birth or aiming to make a few dollars for the vacation fund. Puppies are not cars or toasters; they should be thoughtfully produced, thoughtfully raised, and thoughtfully sold.

Breeders often study their breed — really study it — for years before producing a litter. Dog breeding is animal husbandry every bit as much as the breeding of race horses or beef cattle. In dogs, the aim is to package the genes into a healthy animal that is representative of its breed, not merely to produce more Akitas or Rottweilers or Jack Russell Terriers to sell for a fast buck. The original developers of these breeds knew what characteristics they wanted and carefully mated dogs to get them; breeding today should be approached with the same care.

Breeding a healthy litter is expensive. Sire and dam in all medium-to-giant breeds and mixes should be checked for hip dysplasia even if they show no signs of problems, and they should be screened for other genetic diseases that are prevalent in their breeds and for which tests exist. Toy breeds should at least be checked for slipping patellas (kneecaps). These precautions do not eliminate the potential for inherited disease or abnormality, but they do improve the odds for a healthy litter.

Finally, the decision to breed a litter should include consideration of the puppies' need for socialization and careful screening of potential buyers. Since the puppies will be pets, they should be accustomed to living with people and their noises, smells, and activities from the beginning. Gentle handling is recommended from birth onward, handling that can be done during the three-times-daily cleaning of the whelping area. When puppies begin to move around freely, they should be given toys to play with and spend some time outside the whelping area each day. At five weeks, they can spend time outdoors every day, weather permitting.

Potential buyers can visit the puppies from six weeks on, but no puppy should go to a new home before seven weeks and preferably not before eight weeks. Breeders of toy dogs often keep the litter together for 10-12 weeks or more.

Common sense dog care

Other decisions face dog owners almost daily, decisions that can also be made with common sense.

What to feed? Premium foods cost more but dogs tend to eat less and produce less waste. The ingredients in premium foods are more likely to keep the dog fit, for the companies producing the foods are constantly researching canine nutrition and new formulas to increase their share of the market. Whatever the choice, however, owners should be prepared for stories from dog-owning friends about why that food is no good and the one they chose is better.

However, some dogs will not do well on particular foods, so be prepared to switch if Sassy's coat is dull or she seems to be gaining too much weight or getting too much tartar on her teeth.

(More on food & nutrition)

Vaccinations to get? Puppies should have basic protection from diseases that can kill or seriously affect them, but there is increasing evidence that adult dogs not only may not need annual boosters but that jolting the immune system with yearly shots can cause other problems. Therefore, a dog owner should discuss vaccinations with his veterinarian to determine the best protocol for each pet instead of heading for the nearest low-cost shot clinic.

(More on vaccinations)

Flea treatment? In the past few years, researchers have developed several flea treatments that are easy to use, effective, and less polluting than the old sprays and dips. Genetically enhanced natural insecticides, pills and sprays that interfere with insect growth patterns, and topical applications specific for fleas and ticks provide longer-term protection than the old methods.

(More on Fleas)

Training classes? All dogs need manners. Virtually all puppies and dogs will benefit from the socialization of training classes and most owners will benefit from the wisdom of a carefully chosen instructor and the camaraderie of other dog owners. However, for those whose budgets are tight, a few training books and the persistence to work through problems can be the answer. The end result — good manners — can be achieved either way.

(More on obedience training )

Confinement? Indoors, a crate can aid in housetraining and keep Simba from chewing the furniture or destroying the carpet when he's not under surveillance, but a baby-gate across the kitchen or laundry room doorway can also minimize damage and keep urine and feces on tile floors instead of hardwood floors or carpet.

(More on crates)

Outdoors, a fence is preferred if Fluffy is to be on her own at any time. Underground fences in good repair keep most dogs in, but don't keep other animals or children out. Above-ground fences in good repair keep most dogs in and do keep other dogs and children out.

(More on fences)

If Bear is to live outside a substantial part of each day, a kennel run will keep him safer than a perimeter fence. A kennel run can be permanent or portable and should have a doghouse at one end. Either a kennel run or a perimeter fence is safer for the dog and neighborhood children than a tether used as long-term control.

Common sense results

Each decision should be made with the welfare of the dog and the family relationship in mind. An ill-mannered intact male dog can be a chore to deal with day in and day out, but common sense dictates that neutering and training are a better course than surrendering the dog at the shelter because he is difficult.

An adult dog of an active breed does need daily exercise, but a morning walk is a more practical solution than giving Amber to a rescue group because someone said it is cruel to keep a Golden Retriever in an apartment.

In most cases, the dog is better off in the home he has with the family that wanted him in the first place. Common sense decisions will help owners get past the frustrations and the hurdles so they can develop and nurture the relationship they dreamed of when they brought Yankee home.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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