Dog Ownership 101
By Robert Scott
In the dim, dark, distant past of Europe some twenty thousand years ago, an event happened that would change relationships between primitive humans and animals. A hunter stumbled on a den of crying wolf puppies whose mother had been killed. Wolves were humans’ natural competitors for food.
Instead of killing the pups, the hunter carried them back to his cave dwelling to try raising them. Nurtured with human milk, one or more wolf puppies survived and became attached to the hunting band, taking part in each hunt and sharing in the meat of the killed prey.
It marked the start of the human-dog relationship. The link is not conjectural. It has been confirmed by DNA evidence.
Today, the American Kennel Club recognizes 175 separate and distinct breeds, all tracing their origins back to a common ancestor. And an uncounted number of local breeds are not yet recognized.
Every dog breed today owes its existence to that cave dweller’s decision to try to raise a wolf pup.
The AKC classifies its recognized dog breeds into seven groups that will be familiar to everyone who watches the Westminster Kennel Club judging that takes place every February in Madison Square Garden. These are:
Sporting Group: 28 breeds, including pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels .6 developed to assist hunters in locating and retrieving game.
Hound Group: 26 breeds developed to hunt using sight or scent.
Working Group: 28 breeds intended to guard property or livestock.
Terrier Group: 28 breeds to hunt vermin and dig them from their burrows or layers.
Toy Group: 21 breeds that serve as companions or lapdogs.
Herding Group: 25 breeds originally intended to herd livestock:
Non-Sporting Group: 19 miscellaneous breeds not classifiable above.
Every would-be dog owner contemplating the acquisition of a dog faces a series of questions and decisions:
The first hurdle should be whether or not you should even own a dog. Examine your lifestyle. Is it appropriate for undertaking the responsibility for a living, breathing animal?
For example, if you live alone and your daily schedule takes you away from home from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, it is cruelly unrealistic to expect a companion animal like a dog to remain alone for ten hours, especially as a puppy. And do not make the beginning owner’s mistake of getting two dogs so “they can keep each other company.” Training a single dog is enough of a challenge.
Unlike children, dogs never acquire a measure of independence. Some dog breeds may live as long as 15 years. From the day you acquire it until the day it dies, your dog will be totally dependent on you for its food, water, shelter and exercise. In addition, you will be responsible for such services as regular veterinary care and, for some breeds, grooming. The latter will have to be performed by a professional.
If your job or profession requires you to travel away from home, you’ll have to arrange for the care of your pet while you are gone. Unless you have the temperament or the time to properly train your puppy, the services of a trainer can be an additional expense.
It is estimated that some 83 million dogs are owned in the U.S. today. There is no central agency collecting data on the traffic in and out of animal shelters, but estimates are that 6 to 8 million dogs—and cats--enter the 3,500 animal shelters in the U.S. annually. Some 30% of dogs are reclaimed by their owners; the percentage of cats reclaimed is much smaller.
Dogs and cats that do not find new owners (as many as half the dogs received and a much higher percentage of cats) are eventually euthanized--a shameful and sobering statistic.
To counter the burden of responsibilities incurred by you as a dog owner, you will receive many intangible benefits. First and foremost, you and the members of your family will be showered with companionship and love. The effusive joy expressed by a dog when its owner returns home is unlike any other experience. And when you have a dog, if you are home alone, you’ll never have the feeling that you are alone.
For children, having a dog can teach them that we share this planet with other forms of life. Especially for children, a dog’s utter joy of living and unbounded love can ease many of the problems of growing up.
Here are some of the other questions you should be asking yourself:
Should it be a purebred or mixed-breed dog? The term “mixed-breed” is a modern euphemism intended to avoid the traditional terms of “mongrel” or “mutt.” Strictly speaking, all dogs are members of the same species. Although it may be hard to believe, the tiny Chihuahua and the giant Mastiff are both members of one species. Each such individual breed was created by repeated mixed breeding to achieve the unique qualities each breed now exhibits.
There is evidence that mixed breeding, such as the abandoned accidental mixed-breeds at the local shelter, can yield desirable outcomes, including improvements in health and in qualities like intelligence.
In fact, every modern dog breed has been created by interbreeding with other breeds to bring into the lineage certain desirable qualities or abilities. Such selective mixed breeding has resulted in the improvement of each breed’s ability to perform assigned tasks, even if it was only occupying a royal lap.
Should it be a large or a small dog?
The most important factor governing the size of the selected puppy or dog is the size of the home in which the animal will live. If you live in an apartment you should probably be looking at one of the smaller breeds or at a small dog from a dog shelter.
Strangely enough, large, easygoing breeds like the Irish Wolfhound, Scottish Deeerhound or Great Dane, all of which are fairly inactive indoors, have been kept in city apartments. The usual excuse is “to discourage burglars.” Unfortunately, none of these three breeds makes a good watch dog or guard dog. And the problem for their owners is that such big dogs require long walks every day. If you are such an owner and you cannot do the walking, you’ll have to employ someone to do it for you.
What kind of coat should the dog have?
With purebred dogs, the coat is pretty much dictated by the breed standard. Most breeds can do with a grooming varying from once a week to once a day for heavy shedders like the Dalmatian and the German Shepherd. Maintaining the coat of some breeds requires professional skill at trimming and could represent an extra expense. Such breeds include the schnauzers and several of the wire-haired terrier breeds. Most breeds shed their whole coat once or twice a year. Most dogs like having attention paid to them and enjoy being groomed.
Should it be a male or a female dog?
In the dog world, male dogs are called “dogs”; females are referred to as “bitches.” Males are generally more protective than females but usually do not wander or fight unless they belong to a wandering or fighting breed. By nature, females are usually more docile than males. Males, which tend to be larger than bitches, are more aggressive, but many dog owners will recall owning bitches that could intimidate any male. Mature males also lift a hind leg when urinating, which can wreak havoc on your or your neighbor’s shrubbery. It costs more to spay a bitch than to alter a male dog.
What’s the best age at which to adopt a puppy?
When a puppy is part of a litter, it learns many valuable lessons, including important life skills from its mother, such as eating and grooming. Its litter-mates will help teach it socialization. If taken from its mother too early, the pup will miss these lessons and may not thrive or socialize well with people.
For the first month the pups will be on diet of mother’s-milk. At three to four weeks, they will begin to be weaned from their mother. By eight weeks they will be completely weaned, eating only puppy food. Many breeders offer them for adoption at eight weeks. Other breeders tend to keep puppies until they are ten weeks old to ensure that they get a good start in life.
The older the puppy is at adoption, the better you will be able to see what it will look like at maturity. The risk with puppies that remain too long with their mother is that they develop a “kennel personality” and have difficulty making the change to human ownership.
My wife and I acquired our German Shepherd from a kennel in Putnam County that had two litters simultaneously, so there was an abundance of dogs from which to choose. We began by watching the puppies in each litter at play, observing their interactions with one another. We finally narrowed our choices down to one puppy from each litter and took them outside. Setting both puppies down on the wide grassy lawn, we walked away from them.
One pup wandered around smelling the flowers. The other pup followed close behind us. When we stopped, the puppy stopped and looked at us quizzically, as if to say, “What do we do next?” Making a decision was easy. One might say that the puppy chose us.
He loved children and recognized them as different. On walks as an adult, little kids would greet him effusively, mauling him with hugs around the neck without causing us to worry. He still occupies a big place in our hearts.
Where can I get a dog or a puppy?
If you decide to get a mixed-breed dog or puppy, there are pounds and shelters in every locality with purebred dogs and mixed-breed puppies available for a modest fee. You do an animal and yourself a favor by adopting from a shelter. Not only do you save a life, you gain a grateful friend and companion.
If you have a particular breed of dog in mind and you want a puppy, most breed associations publish lists of breeders on the Internet. Most breeds also have “rescue” Internet sites from which you can adopt an older purebred dog.
In buying a purebred puppy, you should know that there are many so-called “puppy mills” that breed dogs indiscriminately and under unsanitary conditions. These are usually breeds that are enjoying popularity at the moment.
One point to remember is that the little ball of fur you saw in the pet shop window and bought impulsively will grow into a much larger mature specimen of the breed.
What equipment will I need?
First, get a collar of appropriate size and a leash of appropriate thickness. You’ll also need an untippable water dish and a food dish, which can be an adult dog size. Many owners provide a crate, usually a wire cage in which the dog can be locked at night. A crate also provides the dog with a place that it can consider its own.
It’s always a good idea to accustom your puppy to your taking food, bones or toys from its mouth as a precaution against the day when it has its jaws clamped down on something you don’t want it to swallow.
You should also socialize your puppy by exposing it to a great many people so that it doesn’t become overly protective.
And don’t forget a training manual that will enable you to teach your puppy more than the basic commands, come, sit, stay, down and heel. Many manuals are available in your local library or on the Internet.
Whether you train your dog yourself or have it done professionally, the point to remember is that it is best done when your dog is young. Dogs respond poorly to training that is inconsistent or abusive, and to trainers who are indecisive or unjust.
Regrettably, a dog’s life is comparatively short—between 10 and 15 years— but they can be great years for you and your children, and the source of many happy memories and family reminiscences.