You’ve adopted your first dog – congratulations! This is an exciting time in your life, and a very happy moment in your dog’s life. For first-time dog parents, this monumental occasion can also present unique challenges, as there is much to learn. Luckily, others who have owned dogs for many years, as well as canine experts, have recommendations and advice that they are willing to share with newbie dog parents. Through proper preparation and patience, you can overcome the myriad challenges involved with first-time dog ownership and enjoy a thriving, fulfilling relationship with your new hound.
1. Do Your Research
Before taking on the immense responsibility of becoming a new dog parent, you must make sure that you are thoroughly ready for these new obligations. Consider what a new dog will need from you, physically, mentally and emotionally, and be sure that you are prepared to provide them with everything necessary to give them a happy life.
Think about how a prospective new dog will fit in with your life, your lifestyle, the place where you live, and your family. This can help you to decide upon potential breeds that you’d like to look into adopting. Shelter staff can also work with you to help you to find a dog who is the best match to your lifestyle and family.
When you have narrowed down your choices of dogs to adopt, make sure that you know about your chosen dog’s background – including where the dog is coming from, and what situation the dog has been living in. Talk with staff at the shelter housing the dog to learn about its unique needs and idiosyncrasies. They are usually quite familiar with each dog’s personality.
If your neighborhood or subdivision has pet restrictions or requirements, ensure that you have researched them and your responsibilities as a law-abiding dog owner. Be familiar with the licensing requirements and vaccinations that your pet will need. Ascertain that you have enough money set aside to pay for your new dog’s initial medical care as well as ongoing well-visits, and everything in between. In general, according to the American Kennel Club, annual costs for a dog’s food, grooming, medical check-ups, pet sitting fees, and other miscellaneous fees average $2500.
2. Understand Their Social Needs
Just like all living things, dogs have social needs, too. Keeping your dog socially fulfilled will help them to avoid boredom and assist in keeping their mind sharp. Dogs who have been living in a shelter often have backgrounds in which they received little to no socialization, so you, as their new owner, must be prepared to socialize your dog.
Socialization methods should be based on the age and temperament of the dog. Puppies, for example, need to be gently introduced to new people and other animals, as well as taught how to be alone. Separation anxiety can cause destructiveness in many puppies, in which they will chew items in their new owner’s home during their owner’s absence. Schedule daily alone time for your puppy or dog, teaching them what it’s like to not be around other pets or people. Use crates or baby gates to prevent your dog from destroying your home during alone time.
No matter the age of the dog, providing your dog playtime with other dogs is a good start at socializing your dog. Dog parks can be perfect for introducing this type of socialization. If you have friends with dogs, set up time in which you can walk together with your dogs to gently introduce them to each other. From there, you can move to off-leash sessions in fenced-in yards, giving the dogs time to run and play with each other.
3. Understand Their Exercise Needs
Dogs need regular exercise to remain healthy and happy. Exercise provides dogs of all ages with mental stimulation and helps to keep them active, reducing their risk of obesity and even prolonging their lives. This can also be a great time for you, the new dog owner, to embark on daily walks with your dog, not only for the dog’s exercise but for your own health. Walks are perfect forms of exercise for most dogs, as they enjoy being exposed to new smells, sounds and sights daily.
A dog’s exercise needs vary depending upon their age, health and breed. Ideally, your dog should be getting exercise daily. Puppies, especially, have boundless energy and can benefit from exercise to burn off some of that energy. Several short play times during the day are recommended for puppies over a long walk that can tire the puppy out.
Higher-energy adult breeds like border collies and Belgian Malinois need more exercise than lower-energy breeds such as basset hounds or bulldogs. You must also take your dog’s health into consideration when planning their exercise. If a dog has a medical condition, like respiratory issues or hip dysplasia, avoid long walks that may cause pain or discomfort.
Forms of exercise that you can participate in with your dog, in addition to walks, include:
- Cycling. No, your dog won’t ride a bicycle. They can, however, go with you when you ride yours.
- Skating. Again, your dog can’t skate but might enjoy keeping pace with you while your rollerblade or skateboard.
- Hiking. This is more of a glorified long walk, and can involve new terrain and trails. Be aware of potential dangers to your dog, such as wildlife, in unknown areas.
- Swimming. Many dogs love to swim, and it provides great low-impact exercise in particular for dogs with joint problems. Use a doggie life jacket so your dog can enjoy being in the water for longer periods of time.
- Fetch. Dogs will play fetch for hours. You can vary the fetch game by having your dog run uphill to retrieve an object, or tossing it into the water.
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4. Understand Their Nutritional Needs
Dogs have unique nutritional needs that differ from a human’s or from those of any other pet. Although an understanding of human nutritional needs, such as what nutrients like protein and carbohydrates are necessary, can apply to dogs as well, remember that dogs do have their own nutritional needs. Your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist can help you to determine what is best to feed your dog, based upon their breed, age, lifestyle, level of physical activity, and medical condition.
Proper animal nutrition requires balancing of many different factors. Dogs have varying nutritional needs based upon their stage of life. Simply reading the ingredients on a bag of dog food won’t tell you the entire story of where those ingredients came from or the quality of the ingredients. Learning to read animal food labels is an important part of becoming a dog parent. Should you feed your dog grain-free food? Is dog food that’s advertised as “complete and balanced” really all that balanced or complete? How much protein should your dog be eating each day? Your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist can recommend the best type of food for your individual dog.
You also don’t want to overfeed (or underfeed) your new dog. Dog obesity is all too common in today’s society, and is linked to health problems and shorter lives in dogs. Keep an eye on your dog’s weight and discuss with your vet (or veterinary nutritionist) what a healthy weight is for your dog. Make sure you are exercising your dog regularly, too (see number 3 above).
5. Get the Proper Supplies
As a new dog owner, there are many supplies that you will need, and others that you might or might not need, based upon your living situation and your home environment. Again, you should figure in the cost of your new dog’s supplies before you adopt a new dog, to make sure that you can afford the new addition to your family. Some supplies that are needed by virtually every dog owner include:
- Food and water bowls
- Dog food
- Veterinary care
- Heartworm and flea/tick preventives
Other supplies that might be nice to have, as a new dog owner, but aren’t a necessity include:
- Dog bed (your dog can sleep anywhere, but some people like to provide a nice, soft, cushioned area for slumbering)
- Microchip (this can be done at your vet’s office, and is highly recommended in case your dog ever gets lost)
- Dog walker or dog sitter (for times you can’t be with your dog, such as vacations or if you work long hours)
- Dog groomer (although you can bathe your dog yourself, sometimes it’s nice to pay someone else to do so)
- Dog trainer (not just for normal behavioral issues, trainers can also help your dog adapt to their new household, and help your family adapt having the dog in their lives)
- Baby/dog gates (to block off certain parts of the house you don’t want the dog to frequent)
6. Set Up Regular Veterinary Appointments
Your dog’s health should be your utmost concern as a new dog owner. Finding a good veterinarian should, therefore, be number one on your list when you adopt a new dog. In fact, some animal shelters won’t let you take your new dog home until they have proof that you have contracted with a veterinarian for initial care. If you aren’t familiar with veterinarians in your area, ask the shelter or dog adoption agency for recommendations.
After adopting your dog, make a veterinary appointment soon after. This is vital to getting a medical baseline for your dog, and knowing what vaccinations are needed, both now and in the future. Puppies will, of course, need more frequent vaccinations to start. Adult dogs usually need rabies vaccines (either yearly or every three years, depending upon the shot given), as well as Distemper/Adenovirus/Hepatitis/Parvovirus (DAP or DHP) every three years. Other vaccinations that might be recommended depending upon your dog and environment include Leptospirosis, Lyme disease, Canine influenza, and Bordetella.
If your dog has not yet been spayed or neutered, this should be a top priority. (Many shelters or adoption agencies have already spayed/neutered your dog before you adopt, or will require that you pay up front to have it done before they leave the facility). You will also want to get your dog started on heartworm preventive medication, as well as flea and tick preventatives (both of these are usually sold as monthly “treats” you give your dog at home, but they do require a prescription from the vet to purchase).
7. Network With Other Dog Owners
As part of the socialization process (both yours and your new dog’s), it is important to network and make friends with other dog owners. They can not only provide social interactions for your dog and you, but can also provide great referrals for everything dog-related. Your neighborhood friend or a family member who has owned a dog for 10 years, for example, probably knows the best dog parks, veterinarians, groomers, pet sitters, and more in your area.
What if none of your friends or family members are dog owners? It is still possible for you to find and befriend other dog owners. There are social networking sites for dog owners. Meetup.com often hosts active dog groups in certain areas, for example. Your local town’s Facebook page or group might also provide links for dog owners who congregate together. Or, you can just head to the dog park with your mutt and strike up a conversation with a fellow dog owner. Chances are, they will welcome any socialization opportunities for their dog.
8. Learn What Is Normal Behavior for Your Dog
In the research that you did before adopting a dog, you should have learned what normal doggie behavior looks like for that breed and age group. While no dog is perfect, it is important to know what “normal” behavior is for a dog, and to then be aware of any issues that you might notice. If you catch behavioral issues early, you can work on them, or have a trainer help you address them. For example, if your dog barks all the time, it is possible to train them not to do so. If your dog is a destructive chewer, you can train them to stop chewing. Other behaviors like separation anxiety might be more difficult to address but it can be done, with professional help.
If you need to find a dog trainer, first ask your veterinarian and dog owner friends. You can also consult The Association of Professional Dog Trainers to find a licensed trainer near you.
9. Be Firm, But Patient
When training your dog, it is important to be firm with your expectations, without becoming aggressive. Also keep in mind that training a puppy is different from training an adolescent dog or an adult dog. Puppies are blank slates who have never been trained. Attending group training together based on positive reinforcement can be a great way to learn how to communicate with your dog.
Whatever you do, when training your dog, don’t become aggressive. Aggression leads to negative reinforcement which can negatively impact your training goals. Patience is definitely a virtue when it comes to training your dog. Introduce new things, like a collar, for example, to your dog slowly, and have them wear it for a few minutes each day. Keep building up time daily, until your dog is fine with wearing the collar.
You must remember that you and your dog speak different languages. Training your dog involves trying to find a language you both can understand. It takes time and patience to make your training objectives clear to your dog. Be fair to the dog by giving them plenty of time to understand and learn.
10. Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement, also called operant conditioning, involves rewarding your dog for good behavior. No matter the age of the dog, rewarding good behavior (with treats, for example), is highly recommended. Positive reinforcement will reinforce good behavior in your dog.
There are four parts of operant conditioning training:
- Positive reinforcement – which is giving a dog something they love when they perform a wanted behavior
- Positive punishment – adding something a dog does not like (i.e., a swat with a newspaper) when they perform an unwanted behavior
- Negative reinforcement – taking something unpleasant away in order to make a good behavior happen more often. Releasing the pressure on your dog’s choke chain when your dog performs a good behavior is one example.
- Negative punishment – remove something your dog likes to decrease the frequency of a bad behavior. An example is ignoring your dog when they jump on you. By ignoring your dog, you are removing your attention from them, something they want, to discourage jumping behavior in the future (something you don’t want).
When training your dog, it is best to focus on positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Researchers from the University of Lincoln found that training dogs with positive reinforcement was more effective at addressing target behavior as well as general obedience training than using a shock collar. It is certainly a much more humane way of training your dog.