Written by Penaran Higgs, Pet Behaviour Counsellor and Trainer (BSc Hons, Dip. CABC, prov member of the APBC).
Many people seem to think that when they have a baby, it’s the ideal time to get a puppy. They dream of the two growing up as little buddies – kicking a ball around in the park, playing “fetch” together, with the dog happy to join in with children’s games, and have it’s ears or tail tugged and pulled. It sounds idyllic – and it can be - but only where the dog has had careful, time-consuming, and intensive (reward-based) training and socialisation from an early age. All too often this doesn’t happen – typically the owners have bought the puppy just before the baby’s due date, not realising the hard work caring for it would entail. When the baby arrives, in the chaos of disrupted routines and sleepless nights, the puppy gets forgotten about, and becomes unhappy, bored, frustrated, lonely, and a time-bomb for behaviour problems, or worse still a family tragedy.
A puppy is always learning, and without careful intervention and direction, will learn all sorts of things we don’t want it to – such as how much fun it is to chase cats, bicycles and cars; chew cushions and table legs; jump up on people; knock over toddlers; nip at children’s arms, legs and clothes; and steal their food. All this is perfectly normal behaviour for a puppy, but often it’s not what owners expect, and they can start to believe that they “got a bad one”, or that their puppy is “worryingly aggressive”. Perhaps they start thinking about re-homing their puppy or giving it up to a rescue home. Sadly though, by the time this happens, the dog is not a cute puppy anymore, but rather, an adolescent dog, who has had no training, is not properly house-trained, and by now may have behavioural issues such as real aggression to people, other dogs or situations through a lack of socialisation, or separation issues from too much disruption at an early age. The likelihood of finding a new home is slim, so the dog languishes in kennels for a few months, all the while its behaviour getting worse. It is never re-homed, and eventually put down.
Sadly this type of situation is a daily occurrence throughout the UK. But it doesn’t have to happen if there is careful planning and thought before any puppy or dog is bought.
The best time to get a dog is during a time of little change and disruption to family life; when lots of time and attention can be given to the new member of the family – not when a new baby is just on the way, or has just arrived! Prospective owners need to realise that – whatever the breed of dog – it’s unwise to leave them unattended with children under 10, not because dogs are naturally aggressive, but because children can often encourage aggression and excessive play-biting through teasing or inappropriate games. In addition although children can, and should, be encouraged to join in with training and care-providing for the dog, they should not be given anything other than token responsibility, because often their co-ordination and timing is simply not good enough to produce a well trained dog under control. Adults should always assume therefore, that having a dog will take up many hours of their day. Every day.
Prospective puppy owners need to research into the most appropriate breed for their lifestyle rather than choosing a dog just depending on how attractive it is. They need to think about how many hours a day they can contribute to its wellbeing. Most breeds of dog need to be walked for at least an hour or two each day, regardless of the weather, and even small dogs can need disproportionately large amounts of exercise. www.thefurrygodmother.co.uk is a great resource to help choose the right breed of dog.
Owners also need to consider how much they can afford in food bills (large dogs eat a lot more than small ones!), how much they can afford in vet fees (some breeds are more prone to various diseases than others, with cross-breeds more likely to be healthy and disease free), and research the best type of pet insurance for them.
Lastly, they need to make sure that they can put aside enough time each day to socialise, train, and entertain their dog. Careful socialisation needs to occur systematically during the first 3 months of a dog’s life. If a dog is not socialised properly at this stage, there is no “making it up for it” later, and will lead to many behaviour problems such as aggression fearfulness and separation issues. Training should also start early and continue for the rest of the dog’s life if they are to be happy and well adjusted. All dogs, regardless of size need plenty of mental stimulation in the form of daily games.
The prospective owner firstly needs to make sure they buy the puppy from a responsible breeder; www.thefurrygodmother.co.uk can help with this too. Unfortunately many puppies bought from pet shops on impulse are from puppy farms, and kept in appalling conditions, storing up a lifetime of illness and behaviour problems. Each dog bought from these places helps unscrupulous breeders stay in business. A good breeder will have bred from a strong healthy line, and be willing to show you the mother who should be friendly and sociable (fear is passed down from the mother’s side). The puppy should be 8 to 10 weeks old at the time of collection, should be living in the family home rather than outdoor kennels, so already socialised to the sounds and sights of a busy household. They may also have made sure that the puppy is well on the way to being fully housetrained by the time you need to take it home.
As soon as the puppy arrives home, the owner needs to make sure that it becomes their full time job for a few weeks to help it settle in, continue with the socialisation, and be constantly monitored to help it learn to toilet outside and prevent unwanted behaviour from developing. The puppy should be enrolled into kind, reward-based puppy training classes as soon as possible, timed to start as soon as the inoculations allow it to socialise with other dogs. www.puppyschool.co.uk is a national network of good, professional and qualified reward-based trainers.
If this sounds like too much hard work, perhaps a dog isn’t for you. Or if you are prepared to put in a bit of work, but not that much, why not choose an oldie from a rescue home? There are plenty of older dogs just crying out for good homes in rescue centres around the UK, or on websites of smaller, less well-funded websites such as www.manytears.co.uk. Old dogs are much more likely to enjoy a lifestyle of a little bit of training, plus one or two quick walks around the block per day, then a cosy up in front of the fire, acting as a hairy “stress reliever”/cushion. Alternatively, greyhounds make great low maintenance pets, happy to have a quick sprint in the park, and then doze for the rest of the day. All dogs need training however. Contact www.greyhoundrescue.co.uk for more information.
If you do find yourself in the situation of owning a dog with behaviour issues, however, make sure you go to a qualified behaviourist who, like me, only uses kind methods (my website is www.petshrink.co.uk), and who is a member of the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors). I also run private training sessions for all ages and breeds of dog.