Bringing home your first dog or cat is a big deal. And while your family’s life is about to change in the best way, challenges await. Use these strategies to make the transition as easy as possible.
Young Girl Looking at Labrador Puppy Laying on Legs
Credit: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

1. Introduce it gradually.

Your home is a whole new world! Experts say a pet can take several months to feel completely comfortable in an environment, so as excited as you might be to introduce your furry family member to friends, hold off on hosting a “puppy party” or inviting a lot of people over right away. Rescue animals may be especially shy. “Give your pet plenty of time to adjust, and let it signal when it’s ready to come out of its shell,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center.

2. Prepare for chewing.

It’s unavoidable, especially for teething puppies—but bored pups too. “When dogs are looking for something to do, they’ll find it—like chewing on the furniture,” says Buchwald. Keep compressed rawhides or rugged chew toys in reach at all times, especially when no one’s available to play. And here’s where your kids can help: Taking walks, playing fetch, and running around the yard with your pup are the best distractions from chewing. The same goes for cats. If you don’t want yours to claw at your couch (it will!), get a scratching post.

3. Puppy-proof your home.

Think of your furry baby as another toddler in your house. Put up gates if you don’t want your dog in certain rooms, secure stray lamp cords and modem wires, and remove dangly decorations like low-hanging twinkle lights or tablecloths. “Our puppy constantly brought treasures he’d found in the bathroom wastebaskets into the living room, so we solved the problem by getting closed-top garbage cans,” says Diane Debrovner, Parents deputy editor and mom of two.

4. Train with food.

“Food is like currency to a dog, so stock up on high-value treats like slices of hot dogs and deli meat,” says Marty Becker, D.V.M., a veterinarian at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, and coauthor of From Fearful to Fear Free. Besides serving as rewards for cooperating when you comb your dog’s coat and clip its nails, treats also provide the most effective way to train your pet to sit and lie down on command. You’ll need to invest time and continued reinforcement to help your dog master these commands, but the payoff is a well-mannered canine!

5. Create a potty plan.

In general, your dog will always have to go potty within 15 minutes of waking up, eating, or exercising. A puppy can hold its pee or poop one hour for every month of age, so a 4-month-old puppy should be taken out at least every four hours. But most puppies can sleep for about seven hours during the night without needing a potty break. Use the exact same command every time you take your dog out, like “Be quick!” or “Do your business!” and give a specific treat (mmm, turkey hot dogs!) each time. During the day, watch for cues that your pup needs to go, like circling or sniffing an area. Whatever you do, don’t yell or swat if your pet has an accident. It’ll likely end up hiding when it has to go again instead of coming and trying to tell you.

6. Make it feel comfortable.

Kids have playrooms. Animals need a space to chill too. Set up a bed or a blanket just for your pet in your living area. “Keep in mind that cats like spots where they can look out a window, and dogs prefer resting places that face the door so they can see who’s coming and going,” says Buchwald.

7. Get to the vet.

Schedule an appointment during the first week home. “Your pup may have already been vaccinated and spayed or neutered, but a trained vet can help with behavioral issues and detect potential medical concerns, like a tumor or an infected tooth, that may have been missed,” says Dr. Becker. As for regular checkups, keep in mind that cats age about three years every year after their first birthday and dogs age about five years every year after their second birthday, so annual or semi-annual visits do matter.

8. Divide and conquer tasks.

“Pets bring the whole family together, but ultimately it’s the adults who give the most care,” says Buchwald. That said, small tasks should absolutely be handed out. “My 3-year-old fills our dog’s food bowl at dinnertime, which has strengthened their bond,” says Nick Braun, a dad of three in Columbus, Ohio. Put your big kid in charge of cleaning the litter box on the weekends or playing with the dog outside after school. Remember: Giving loads of attention to your pet counts as a job!

9. Trim costs without guilt.

A large bag of dry pet food could range between $20 and $50. To keep spending in check, tell your vet where you plan to buy yours (grocery store versus specialty pet store) and ask for her brand recommendations sold there. Vets know what foods are best nutritionally at every budget, says Dr. Becker.

10. You won’t regret it.

“I was so worried about all the work of a puppy, and how much stress it would add to our already stressful life,” says Tracy Hadel, Parents associate publisher and mom of two. “Someone told me that I wouldn’t even mind what happens to my house and lifestyle once I made the decision. They were right. The happiness our dog brings to my family, and my children in particular, makes all the hassles worthwhile.”

Parents Magazine