When it is time for you to get a new puppy or dog, there is a flood of emotions. Excitement. Anticipation. Glee. Concern. Worry. All of this is a normal part of the process. However, it is crucially important that you understand WHY it is you want a new puppy or dog and if the adorable furry creature before you fits the bill. If they don't, it is best for you to use your mind and pass them by, rather than use your heart and cause it to break later.
What Are You Looking For?
This may all sound super detached, cold and calculated. Nothing at all like the romantic movie of running through a field of flowers and chasing balls together with your new canine companion you've been playing over and over in your mind. However, it is an important exercise to go through nonetheless.
Will this be your first dog?
Will this be your first puppy?
Will this be the first puppy you have had in a while?
If you're looking to get a specific breed, do you have experience with this breed and why are you interested in this particular breed?
What are you looking to do with this new puppy or dog? Be specific. Do you want a companion you can take for a walk now and again, play some ball and tug with and watch movies together? Or, are you looking to take them on vacations with you? Perhaps some action-filled adventures such a kayaking, hiking and long-road trips are more your speed. Maybe you want to get involved in dog sports such as agility, barn hunt, competition obedience, rally, scent work, so on and so forth. You must really nail down what it is you want to do with this future canine companion of yours.
Going through this simple exercise can avoid a lot of heartache, disappointment, stress and strife later. As a professional trainer, nothing hurts my heart more than to see a puppy or a dog in a home that is simply not a good fit. The family brought the dog in because it was cute, but now it is causing them to want to rip their hair out and the dog is miserable too. All of that can be avoided if we just sit down and really outline, realistically, what it is we want from our new canine companion and then being honest in assessing, can this puppy or dog we are looking at truly fulfill those dreams and aspirations.
Be Honest, Brutally Honest
Don't fall into the trap of, "Well, I COULD start getting up earlier, and walking regularly, and not sitting in front of the T.V. for 5-hours straight every night, and not traveling every weekend, and..." If you have to completely and totally upend and rearrange your life to make it work with this new puppy or dog, I can tell you from experience, it is not going to work very well.
Instead, honestly evaluate what your life is like now and REALISTICALLY what adjustments can be made.
If your job requires that you travel 3-weeks out a month and the last week you are vegetating on the couch, I highly doubt adding a dog to the mix is going to help you much. Now, if you have family members or friends who are going to be essentially watching and caring for your dog while you are gone, I guess that could work. Or, you could volunteer at the shelter for 1-hour a week to get your puppy fix.
"That's mean! How dare you!"
I'm not trying to offend you, truly. I'm trying to help you see that getting a puppy or a dog comes with a ton of requirements, mainly being time. If you do not have any time now, you are not magically going to have MORE time when you get the puppy or the dog...you are going to have less. A whole lot less. In this situation, you wouldn't be looking for a dog who requires your attention 24/7. Velcro dogs are going to miserable in this type of set-up, and so are you.
But let's say that is not your situation. Instead, you work a 9-5 job but there is usually someone home during that time anyway. Your weekends are free and you look forward to going on the occasional hike with your canine companion. You are open to training and want to do what is best for them. Perfect.
However, you live in a somewhat crowded neighborhood where your neighbors share fences and walls with you. You have a yard, but nothing to write home about. You prefer to sleep in every other Saturday and do not have any formal training in behavior modification...you don't even know what that is.
Well, all of this will narrow down your potential prospects:
You should avoid overly-vocal breeds such as Shelties and Beagles unless you wanted to be reported by your neighbors.
Breeds or specific puppies and dogs who need a ton of physical exercise and enrichment should be stricken from your list. These can include Huskies, Malinois and field-bred Goldens, Labradors and Springer Spaniels to name a few.
Since you do not have a background in behavior modification, and do not want dog training to become your life, steering clear of puppies or dogs who seems overly fearful, reactive or display a propensity to resource guard or have separation anxiety would be a good idea.
What was once a giant sea of possibilities is now narrowed down to something much easier to wrap your hands around.
This exercise of nailing down what you are really looking for prior to ever actively looking for a new puppy or dog is crucially important. Otherwise, your heart will tell you, "Oh, but that one is so cute and needs a home and I can make it work and, and, and...". Then in a few months time, you will be hating everything and everyone because it is simply not a good match.
By being brutally honest at the outset, you can help ensure that the puppy or dog you do bring into your life is the best fit for you.
Research, Research, Research
Whether you are adopting from a shelter or purchasing through a breeder, you should do your research on that facility or individuals ahead of time.
For shelters, ask them questions such as:
How long have they been operating? Did they just pop up yesterday? If so, go look somewhere else.
What is their adoption policy (reputable shelters will have you fill out an application, meet you ahead of time, perhaps schedule an in-home inspection, will have an adoption fee for the puppy and dog, etc.)?
What if a dog develops serious behavioral issues or there is a sudden tragedy in your family, what is their return policy (good shelters will ALWAYS take their animal back)?
What is their return rate (meaning, what percentage of puppies or dogs are returned to the shelter after they have been adopted. If they say 0, they are lying. If it is above 50%, run.)?
Do they do behavioral assessments on their puppies and dogs, and if so, what assessments do they do (e.g. checking for aggression, human sociability, resource guarding, severe fear, etc.)?
What training and/or enrichment do their puppies or dogs receive (if they look at you like you are a crazy person, walk away)?
Do they require anyone adopting to attend a training class afterwards (this is sometimes affiliated with the shelter itself or an associated trainer or training facility)?
Ask where they get their dogs. Are they importing them from overseas? If so, run.
Ask them how you will pick-up your puppy or dog. They want to hand them off to you, sight-unseen, in some random parking lot? Run.
Ask for a tour of the kennels. Do they smell? Is it deafeningly loud? Do the dogs look extremely stressed (e.g. throwing themselves at the doors or curled up in the back)? Does the staff look miserable? Do they bar you from taking such a tour? That is cue to you that they do not want you to see or hear something. Translation: run.
For breeders, you have a fair amount of research to do as well. Most breeds have inherited diseases that reputable breeders work very hard to avoid spreading throughout the gene pool. Therefore, you will want to find out what diseases are prone to the breed you are interested in and if the breeder is testing for those diseases. If they say things such as, "Oh, we do not health test because our dogs are perfect and we guarantee it", run.
You also want to see how the breeding operation is designed. Most reputable breeders only breed a few times a year, if that many. They oftentimes do not have the sire (father) and dam (mother) on the same premises; they will instead choose a dog to breed to who is outside their program to broaden the gene pool and best compliment the dog they have. However, you should be permitted, and encouraged, to meet the parent they do have. If not, that should be a huge red flag.
Also in lines with the breeding operation, you want to see how they are caring for and housing the dogs. Reputable breeders will typically have their dogs living in the home with them. Conditions must be clean and dogs and puppies will be regularly interacting with the breeder and their family members. To do otherwise is to ensure the puppies will be poorly socialized and have behavioral issues. If a breeder will not show you where they are housing the puppies, run.
Reputable breeders will also have gone through the trouble to prove that their dogs can do the tasks they were bred for. This oftentimes means some sort of dog sport competition. However, do not be fooled by a alphabet soup of letters after a dog's name. Fido Is the Best I Promise, CGC TKN is not the same as GCH MACH3 Fido is the Best I Promise, CDX CGCA TKP SWE IPO-1 NW3; the latter is far more accomplished and in significant ways. Do your research to understand what all those acronyms really mean. Unscrupulous breeders will try to razzle and dazzle you with a CGC test or a Novice Trick Dog title (TKN)...those mean a whole lot of nothing when it comes to choosing whether two dogs should be bred or not.
Along the same lines, being "registered" doesn't mean diddly squat. Yes, having papers for an AKC puppy or dog is important but understand that only goes so far. Don't fall into the trap of, "Well, he's got his papers." Great. What else?
As with shelters, reputable breeders will ALWAYS take back any of their dogs for any reason. If a breeder you are thinking about tells you otherwise, run.
Ask questions on social media or in breed-specific online forums. However, be cordial, polite and mature. Reputable breeders are super busy people. They are oftentimes caring for their dogs, campaigning them in a variety of dog sports while juggling their own full time jobs and lives. In other words, they get busy. Simply because a breeder doesn't get back to you within a millisecond of you shooting off an email doesn't mean they are bad. That being said, a breeder you are interested SHOULD be responsive. If not, run.
See if you can find owners of related puppies and dogs. See what they are doing with their dogs. Ask them questions. If they are doing things with the dog from dawn till dusk simply to keep the dog from destroying their house, that is probably not the kind of breeding you should be looking into unless you want the same lifestyle...most of us do not.
Go to a breed show or match. Simply watch. Are there certain dogs who make you nervous for any reason? Find out what lines they are from and steer clear! On the other hand, if there are several dogs who are simply wonderful in every way, see what their breeding is. That may be a line you want to explore and get your puppy or dog from.
Know that waiting for a well-bred puppy or a dog is common. Sometimes you will have to wait a year before one is available. Prepare yourself for that possibility and start your search early, doing your research, making connections and determining exactly what you want and why.
One last thing to note about breeders: they will sometimes have adults available to re-home. This can be due to a dog being returned from a prior owner (which is not always due to some awful thing related to the dog, a lot of times it is due to divorce or death of the owner) or retiring a show or breeding dog. Point being, you could potentially get a really well-socialized and trained adult who is well-bred and can easily assimilate into your household. Just something to keep in mind.
At the end of the day, whether you are looking to adopt or purchase from a breeder, if something seems off, run.
Meet Them and Be Ready to Walk Away
This is the hardest part of getting a new puppy or dog.
When you meet them in-person, you have to be willing to walk away if it is not a good fit.
This can happen for any number of reasons. All of which will manifest itself in your gut. It will be screaming at you that this is not a good idea. Your heart will tug at you, but your gut knows better. It can be painful, it can be difficult, but please, listen to your gut.
Maybe the puppy or the dog has absolutely no interest in you. No matter what you do, they avoid you, do not interact with you at all. Maybe they do not interact with anyone. Even if you sit there for a whole hour, not forcing anything, just waiting...still, nothing. Please, walk away. This is not going to work.
It could be the other way around too. No matter what you do, the puppy or dog is basically assaulting you! They are constantly jumping up, tugging on your clothes, leaping up to practically snap in your face with excitement, pull on your hair, hard. They draw blood when they bite and make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. This should be a big ole "No" for most people. Think of how much time and training it is going to take to potentially get this puppy or dog to settle into your life? Have kids? This is even a BIGGER problem! It could also mean that this is a "hard dog" as we refer to them in the professional training world. Meaning, the likelihood of aggression is increased. All-in-all, this type of puppy or dog doesn't belong in a normal home and will likely need professional intervention...and even that may not be enough.
What about the quiet dog who curls up off by themselves and looks so sad. You want to help them! You can give them a home with love and care! Okay, but do you know what is involved with that? Are you ready to bring in a professional trainer who will outline all sorts of potentially major changes you may have to make to your life to get this to work? These can include never taking this dog anywhere for a few months to a few years, all in an attempt to prevent having the dog become overwhelmed. It could mean putting the dog on medication, if necessary. It could mean that long list of things you dreamed of doing with a dog: going for walks, hikes, taking it your friend's house, going to a dog-friendly cafe, taking them on vacation with you - all of that will go right out the window. Are you ready to sacrifice all of those dreams? Here's the thing: you don't have to.
I worked in the shelter world for years. There are lots of dogs who will need a little bit of time to acclimate to a new home and then, will be fine. They would be a perfect fit for that family. There are others who won't. I'm here to urge you, please, be honest with yourself with what you are willing to take on. Don't allow anyone, not even a well-meaning shelter staff person or volunteer, pressure you into adopting a dog that you know in your gut will not be a good fit. I promise, it will do MORE harm for you to try to "help" that dog than to pass it by and find one who is a better fit. Even if that means coming back another day or going to a different shelter altogether.
"What do you know, I bet you've never been through this!"
Unfortunately, that is not true.
I just had to pass up on a puppy I was very excited to buy from a breeder. I did all my research. I knew what I wanted. On paper, everything looked great. I flew across the country to meet him, made plans to drive back with him, reserved spots in puppy classes, made an appointment with my vet for his third round of shots, bought all kinds of stuff to get ready for him, posted giddily about him on social media...yet when I met him, it was clearly not a good match.
I walked away. I returned the rental car and used up a ton of my mileage rewards to get a rush flight back home. I returned all the puppy stuff I just bought. Cancelled the classes and my vet appointment. Had to make an explanatory post on social media that there would, in fact, be no puppy.
Did it hurt? You bet it did. I was getting a puppy to try to lessen the blow of the imminent passing of my current Doberman who has terminal cancer. I had convinced myself if I didn't get a puppy now, I wouldn't be able to, which of course is ridiculous. Yet, when I met this puppy, I knew I would be signing myself up for 10-12 years of heartache and stress. It simply wasn't a good fit between us. Nothing bad about the breeder or the process. We needed to meet in-person to determine we were not a good match for one another.
The point being, I had to be ready to walk away. If I hadn't prepared myself for that possibility, I would have driven home with him, regretting it the whole time. Eventually, I probably would have returned him to the breeder. All because I wasn't ready to do the right thing the first time. How unfair is that?
"Well that is super depressing..."
Here's the thing: I reached out to some other breeders and am now in the process of looking at another puppy. We will see how it goes, but so far, it looks promising.
The truth of the matter is there are lots and lots and lots and lots of puppies and dogs out there. Please, nail down what you are really looking for and why. Do your research. Ask questions. And most importantly, be willing to walk away if it is not a good match. It will be better for you, and the puppy or dog, in the end.
Dianna L. Santos has been professionally training dogs since 2011. Having specialized in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, Dianna's main goal is to help dogs learn how to be successful in a human world. She does this by outlining ways dog owners can better understand their dogs while designing fun and effective training programs and games both ends of the leash will enjoy. Dianna is also particularly passionate about Scent Work is on a mission to promote the idea that ALL dogs should be playing the sniffing game!