Short of having a baby, bringing a dog into your home is one of the trickiest transitions a family can make. Planning ahead can make the process much easier, especially when it comes to adopting a puppy or a rescue dog. These tips will help you organize your home and your schedule so that every family member -- human and canine alike -- will be happy and healthy.
Find a reliable vet before you even bring your dog home. As you would if you were looking for doctors for your children, the right time to find a vet is before there's an emergency. Ask friends for their recommendations, or use online tools to find a provider in your area. HealthyPet.com is a directory of veterinary care providers who are accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). When evaluating potential vets, visit offices to determine if they're clean, modern, and well-kept. Don't be afraid to ask questions such as: Do the veterinarians on staff make house calls? What kind of insurance is accepted? Are animals referred to specialists as needed? You should also ask about their recommendations for emergency care, and what the procedure is for dogs that need to stay overnight.
Make plans to spay or neuter your dog before you bring him home. Although you can spay or neuter at any age, "fixing" your dog early is less stressful and reduces its risk of various reproductive cancers and adding to overpopulation if it gets free. The American Humane Association says that dogs and cats can be spayed or neutered as early as 8 weeks of age.
Many people refer to their dogs as their babies and when it comes to making your house safe for a dog, the comparison fits. Put all medications on high shelves and install safety latches on cabinet doors to keep curious pets from getting into garbage, cleaning fluids, or food they shouldn't have. Place trash cans in secure closets or buy locking lids. Secure loose wires, move dangling cords, and cover electrical outlets. It's a good idea to move area rugs (ones you don't want to be chewed on) to dog-free spaces. Remember that dogs can jump, so move breakables like vases and figurines to cupboards or closets until your dog is trained. Install baby gates at the bottom of stairs and in the doorways of areas you don't want your dog to enter.
"I think many people underestimate the amount of time and attention a dog needs," says Janet Tobiassen Crosby, D.V.M., a veterinarian who runs the Veterinary Medicine site for About.com. "Shopping for all of the cool dog treats, beds, and other dog stuff is the fun part. But the day-to-day time to play, walk, and train your dog is essential," she says. Dogs need attention and activity to thrive. When left alone for hours they will find ways to occupy that time: barking, digging, chewing -- whatever they come up with, it's pretty much a sure thing that their human family members won't like it. If everyone is out of the house during the day, think about hiring a dog walker for the lunch shift. Not only will it decrease the likelihood of accidents, but it will also help your dog work off any excess energy, making for a much more pleasant experience when you get home from work. Plan on devoting a fair amount of time to bonding with (and exercising!) your dog to prevent unwanted behaviors and ensure a happy pet. At minimum, you'll want to set aside an hour a day for walks, although the precise amount of time will vary depending on the breed and temperament of your animal. Puppies of any breed will demand more attention than grown dogs, but they may have weaker muscle tone, so don't plan on long runs far away from home.
Dole out responsibilities before you bring your dog home, and don't be afraid to explain them to your family in precise detail. Decide who will walk, feed, and bathe the dog, as well as ferry him to vet appointments and training classes. Puppies need to adapt to family routines and be housetrained. Dogs of any age require exercise, attention, and -- don't forget -- someone to pick up their poop. If you use chore charts, integrate the various dog-related chores into your regular schedule. "I think the biggest mistake anyone makes is not planning for a new routine," says Lianne McLeod, D.V.M. "This is especially true when it comes to training. It would be best to have a plan in place and involve all family members right from the start -- even preschoolers can learn the basics of how to get a dog to sit. Decide what rules are going to be in place for things, like whether the dog will be allowed on the furniture. Consistency from day one will make transitioning to life with a dog much easier."
"For dogs and other animal companions, toys are not a luxury, but a necessity," says the Humane Society of the United States. Toys keep dogs active and stave off boredom, but, more important, having safe toys around keeps dogs from playing with potentially dangerous household items such as ribbon, string, and rubber bands. When buying toys, stick with items that are made specifically for pets, and make sure there are no loose buttons or fabric pieces that can easily be swallowed. Avoid fabric that's been dyed and pay attention to the size of the toy -- some large breeds can swallow toys meant for smaller dogs.
When buying food, ask your vet for recommendations and buy those that meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards for your breed and age of dog. Pay attention to how your pet reacts to the food over time: Look for a shiny coat and healthy skin, and monitor the quality and frequency of stools. If your pet has diarrhea, constipation, or other bowel issues, it might be time to try a different brand.
If you start to feel overwhelmed, don't be afraid to ask an expert. "Families shouldn't forget to reach out -- to veterinarians, dog trainers -- if they experience difficulties," Dr. Crosby says. "Sometimes a simple change in environment or routine will help; in other situations, more specialized attention or training is needed. Many of the larger pet supply stores offer in-store socialization and training workshops that are helpful in training both the dog and the human." Friends and family can also offer insight into new pet ownership or specific breeds. The Internet is another valuable resource. Consider joining Meetup.com, a website that connects people with similar interests in offline clubs, to find pet parents in your area. It takes time to adjust to bringing a new dog home, so don't get discouraged if it's tricky at first. It won't be long before you have trouble imagining your life without a furry family member.