Finding the Perfect Dog (the Wrong Way)

There are no words more frightening out of a child’s mouth than, “Mommy, I want a puppy!” This sentence is usually followed by a blood oath-like pledge to take care of the puppy through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, until death do they part – or until the next Sponge Bob episode is on. Mommies across the globe shudder at these words because they know what their child really means to say is, “Mommy, I want you to get a puppy so I can play with it until I get bored.”

Upon hearing these words, the Savvy Mom will typically feign a heart attack or small stroke. This will usually buy her some time, but unfortunately for her, not nearly enough. Eventually, her above-average children, little Timmy and Annie, will figure this out and employ a more demanding approach. Similar to Chinese water torture, they will keep chanting their request, in stereo, over and over again until they get some kind of response out of Mom. Most often this response resembles a nervous breakdown.

Once the kids have mom’s attention, the real pleading begins. Little Timmy loudly whines, “I promise, I’ll take care of the puppy. You won’t have to do a thing…please, please, please!” Savvy Mom will usually respond to this barrage with calm reason, “You know kids, puppies are a lot of work. They need to be fed, walked and brushed everyday. Are you going to do all this?” To this, a quivering lipped Annie replies, “Mommy, why do you hate puppies? Didn’t you have one when you were growing up?” It is at this point Mom can feel her grip slipping. Formerly Savvy Mom goes out of body and hears herself saying, “Go ask your father.”

As we all know, fathers are very little help in matters such as these. In fact, they often will become allies to the children and tip the balance against Savvy Mom. It usually starts with dear old dad telling the kiddies about the perfect dog he had growing up, Sparky. By the time Dad is done, everyone actually believes old Sparky was smart enough to help Dad with his math homework and was instrumental in getting Dad his first kiss with his 7th grade crush, Susie Sandberg. With renewed confidence and a swagger to their skip, Timmy and Annie loudly scream, “Yea!! Dad says its OK!”  The water boarding begins again, “We’re getting a puppy! We’re getting a puppy! We’re getting a puppy!” Mom quietly asks herself, “Where the hell did I put the Xanax?”

Pleasantly medicated, Savvy Mom now concludes the puppy is inevitable. It’s only a matter of picking the right puppy. In Mom’s mind, the puppy will be small, hypo allergenic and non-shedding. Unfortunately, after hearing about good old Sparky, your kids have their heart set on one just like it – a Saint Bernard / German Shepherd mix. After all, Annie needs help with her homework and Timmy is eager to start making out.

Wanting to slow down this doggie freight train, mom agrees to go look for a puppy. In her mind, she hopes she can keep the family looking until she is safely tucked away in the blissful blanket of Alzheimer’s disease.

One thing mom knows is that, much like annoying children, there are already way too many dogs in the world. The one concession Savvy mom has won from her canine crazed clan is to look for a puppy at an animal shelter. As the profusely panting pack piles into the minivan, they begin their quest for the perfect dog. Halfway to the shelter, Savvy mom glances into her rearview mirror and notices her entire family has their heads sticking out the windows. She continues to monitor her family for the rest of trip and is quietly relieved she doesn’t catch them sniffing each other’s butts.

“Now remember,” mom stresses as they pull into the parking lot of the shelter, “We’re only here to look. It could take us years to find the right puppy!”  Before the car can come to complete stop, dad and the kids jump out the windows and begin an impromptu game of tag in the parking lot. Savvy Mom watches in disbelief as Dad chases after little Timmy, bites his sweatshirt sleeve and drags him to the ground. Worried that they’ll run into the road and get hit by a car, Savvy Mom whistles loudly and waves a roll of cherry lifesavers at the pack. The all come running to her practically knocking her down to get a tiny tidbit of her tasty treats.

Sufficiently calmed, mom starts walking to the door of the animal shelter with her husband and kids nipping at her heels. She can’t help but feel relieved as the door shuts behind them and the danger of the busy road is a fading memory. The noise inside the shelter is deafening. Loud barking, howling and growling fills her ears. She silently prays that her family will quiet down when they enter the kennel area so they don’t frighten the dogs.

As the heavy metal door swings open, the family scampers into the large kennel building. As far as the eye can see, there are rows and rows of kennels each filled with wide-eyed tail wagging dogs of different shapes, sizes and colors. Savvy Mom can tell her family is very excited not only by the expressions on her children’s faces, but also by the fact that her husband is unconsciously humping her leg.

After dumping a bucket of cold water on her husband’s head, Mom and the pack head for the first row of adorably, smelly dogs. For the next two hours the family sniffs out every corner of the kennel yelling to the rest of the pack, “Come here, look at this one,” “Mommy, this one likes me,” and the inevitable from dad, “Kids, look at the size of that poop!”

“Maybe we can come back next week and look again” mom suggested.  Screaming, crying and a major tantrum ensued. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the kids and mom were able to calm dad down. “Maybe we could look for a few more minutes,” little Timmy pleads.

As the family rolls around the corner heading to the last row of kennels, the kids all stop, “Look at this one! He’s so cute,” daughter Annie squealed. Timmy yelled, “He is so cool looking! I love the long hair.” Dad took one look at his feet, “Wow, look at the size of those paws! If he grows in to those babies, we’ll never have to worry about being robbed!” Savvy Mom is about to lay down the law and say no way, when it happens. Big Foot tilts his head ever so slightly. Then staring deeply into Savvy Mom’s eyes… he winks. “Did you guys see that?” mom asked excitedly. “See what?” said the kids.

After a long silence, mom breaks,  “I guess if we’re getting a dog, this one might as well be it.” Everyone begins screaming and hollering. In fact, dad is so excited, the only way Savvy Mom can settle him down is to lay him on the ground and scratch his belly.

As Big Foot and his new family jump into the mini-van and start their journey home, Dad asks, “I wonder what type of dog this is?” As mom thinks about that magical wink, she replies, “The perfect type for our family! Now wipe your slobber off the armrest and get your head back in the window. You’re scaring the puppy.”

** Is mom right? Did the Savvy Family find the perfect dog?

(A Better Way)

Did the Savvy Family find the perfect dog? The answer is… I don’t know. Maybe, but probably not. While there are many things to look for when selecting a puppy the ability to wink, in my experience, is nowhere near the top of that list. Imagine a year from now, coming home from a long day in the salt mines to find that your now 200 lb little bundle of joy has just eaten your favorite chair and is halfway through the sofa as you walk through the door. As shock turns to horror, the dog lifts his head and looks you in the eye… then winks. Everything’s all better, right?

In the world of instant gratification that we live in, it’s no wonder when we decide that we want something, many of us simply go out and get it… now. We tell ourselves that we’ll figure the rest of it out later. Speaking from experience, this strategy rarely works. Just ask my ex-wife.

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that many families put more thought into selecting a brand of toothpaste than they do selecting a family pet. The irony is, in many of those families, I find the tube of toothpaste actually lasts longer than the dog does. Perhaps someday your children will learn what the CIA now knows, water boarding is not the best long-term solution.

It’s no wonder that some people make snap decisions when it comes to adding a dog to the family pack? I have a cousin who decided to have a baby because she loves how babies smell. Being the father of three boys I warned her that while children do continue to smell for a lifetime, that cute baby smell goes away on the second box of Pampers! Be careful what you wish for.

So, how should you go about picking the perfect puppy for your family? Great question, I’m glad I asked it. While I have no magic beans, there are some things you can do to greatly improve your odds of having a successful adoption. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of families training their puppies and dogs. Most call me when they realize that little wink thing isn’t working. Based on my experience, let me give you a few things to consider before you go out and thrust your family dynamics into chaos for the next 15 years.

The good new is, when it comes to canines, your choices are almost unlimited. Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments. Each specific breed has characteristics that most dogs of that breed will exhibit. Doing your homework and selecting the right breed is the single most important thing you can do to ensure a happy ending to this four-legged story.

Before simply giving in to the kiddy water torture, take some time and ask yourself a few simple questions:

1) What am I looking for in a dog?

Are you looking for a yippy little thing to sit in your lap and keep you company while watching Judge Judy? If so, a Bichon or a Chihuahua might be your best choice. Or maybe, you’re looking for a jogging partner. If that’s the case, a Siberian Husky or an Irish Setter will run along side of you until your Nikes and your knees turn to dust.  If you’re in the witness protection program, perhaps a big fanged German Shepherd or Rottweiler will do the trick. Whatever your needs are for a dog, I assure you there is a breed best suited for the job you want to give it.

2) What is my family’s lifestyle?

Do you have an active household with lots of people coming and going or does your living situation more closely resemble that of the Unibomer? Dogs like Golden Retrievers and Labradors generally love people and thrive in active households. Other breeds such as the Doberman Pinscher or Kuvasz are typically better suited to less active homes without a large number of shady strangers coming and going.

Another important factor to consider is who lives in your home. Are there small children in the house? How about frail senior citizens with highly breakable bones? One overexcited Old English Sheepdog can inadvertently squash a small child and take out both Grandma and Grandpa’s hips without even noticing. Do your best to match the breed to your specific lifestyle and you’ll greatly enhance your chances of success.

3) What are my living arrangements?

Do you live in a small apartment or do you have a large home with a big yard? Will your new puppy sleep in a crate in the kitchen or on your bed? Where will you put the puppy when you’re not at home? These are important questions that should answered before you start opening cans of Purina Puppy Chow. You’d be surprised how many people acquire a dog and then think about all these things later. Later is usually early Monday morning as they’re frantically trying to wall-off their kitchen before they rush off to work. The prudent dog owner gives very careful consideration to where their new dog will sleep and stay when unsupervised… well before his cute little paws hit the floor. Take my advice, a little thought and consideration here will save your sanity, your Persian rug and quite possibly your marriage.

Where to find the right canine…

So where do you go to find the perfect dog for your family?  Unfortunately, there isn’t a single right answer to this question. If you ask your friends and neighbors where they got their dogs, I doubt you’ll get a consensus. There are many ways a dog can find his way to the foot of your bed. Keep in mind, adding a new puppy to your family should be an informed decision not an emotional one. That being said, I understand this is a process where it is very easy to get sucked in to making an emotional decision. After all, those puppies are so darn cute!

Listed below you will find the most popular places where you can acquire your next canine companion along with some of my thoughts about each.

Pet Shops: No one likes to admit they bought their puppy at a pet shop. It is common knowledge that these places are run by evil people. Like you, I learned this by watching the Oprah episode on puppy mills. Popular opinion is that anyone who supports these enterprises should be spayed or neutered without anesthesia. While there may be some truth to this, I don’t believe it is that black and white. There are an awful lot of puppies purchased every day at pet shops across the country. If the dogs coming out of pet shops were truly as horrific as we are made to believe, there wouldn’t be near as many of them as there are. That being said, know that pet shops are like Wedding Chapels in Las Vegas; it’s a place where emotional decisions are made.

When cruising the local mall, who can resist walking into the pet store to look at the puppies?  Seeing those cute little puppy dog eyes staring at you through the glass can rip a hole in your sentimental heart. One can only imagine how horrible it must be for this poor little puppy to have a chirping Cockatiel for a neighbor. Being the Good Samaritan you are, you know that for only $1200, you can swoop in and save this puppy’s pitiful life of living in a cage. Who knows, you might even get invited to be on Oprah.

Before you go and pull the trigger on your checkbook, take a look around. Is the store clean? Are the puppy’s cages clean? How much information on the puppy can you get? How old was the puppy when it left its littermates?  You should ask yourself these questions because you could end up dealing with the consequences of the answers for a long time.

The cleanliness issue deals with getting a healthy pup or a sick one. Newborn puppies are like Petri dishes for viruses and bacteria. More than one client of mine has brought home their perfect puppy from the pet store, only to have it end up at the doggie hospital for an extended period of time while it was battling Parvovirus or other dog diseases. When this happens, the kids are devastated and the $1200 you spent to buy the puppy is a drop in the bucket compared to having your new pup on life support for a week.

My other main concern about pet shop puppies is their age when they leave their littermates. In order to have a well-adjusted puppy, most research suggests not taking a puppy away from its mother and littermates prior to eight weeks of age. Puppies go through various stages of development and you really want them to get the entire eight weeks before you traumatize them by exposing them to your crazy household. While there is doggie Prozac, it’s usually much better if your puppy can make it au natural!

Can you get a decent dog from a pet shop? Many people do but many others have problems. Pet shops are certainly not my first choice.

Animal Shelters: Acquiring your next pet from an animal shelter is a noble gesture. There are far too many dogs out there already that don’t have good homes. Taking a dog out of a shelter and sparing it the death penalty makes us all feel good. My only concern here is that you don’t know what you’re getting. In many cases, the dogs are mixed breeds and you would need extensive genetic and DNA testing to unravel exactly the kind of dog you have. You also don’t know the dog’s prior history. Was he neglected? Was he abused? These are all important questions to ask, especially if you have children in your house. The bottom line is, you just don’t know. In my opinion, if I had small children in the house, I would never get a dog that I didn’t know its background.

You would think that with a dog guy like me in the family, no relative of mine would ever have a bad dog experience. Well, think again. Recently my niece called to tell me that her family (which consists of her husband, six-year old son and a new baby due in four months) was getting a dog. When I asked if they wanted help in finding the right dog, she said that her husband already found one. It turns out the husband, an Army Ranger just back from Iraq, always wanted a dog and had his heart set on a dog like him… a macho muchacho. While visiting a shelter he fell in love with a year and a half old intact male Rottweiler. He was told the dog was in the shelter because the couple he had been living with was getting a divorce and couldn’t keep their five dogs. He was also told the dog came from the very best bloodlines and had been raised with children.

To make a long story short, about a week later while my niece was chatting on the phone she heard a blood-curdling scream from the living room. As she ran into the room she saw this large dog from the finest background with her small son’s arm in his mouth shaking him from side to side. Needless to say, the dog is now back in a shelter and the family is somewhat traumatized by the whole ordeal. You can bet their next family pet will be a hamster or maybe even a pet rock.

I purposely left my usual wit out of this section to drive home a point. If you have kids, brining an adult dog into your house is very serious business. Do not leave unsupervised children alone with a dog you don’t know inside and out. This is not a story unique to animal shelters. It could be from a newspaper ad, an online rescue group or a stray dog that shows up in your backyard. If you’re not sure of the dog’s background, move on down the road and keep looking, you can always meet Oprah later.

Can you find a good dog at a shelter? With a little homework and some time looking, of course you can. If you’re an adult household, I don’t have any problem with you picking a shelter dog. If you have young rug rats running around your house and you like them, I don’t recommend it.

Newspaper Ads / Backyard Breeders: Local newspaper ads can sometimes be a good place to find a nice pet. The advantage here is that the majority of these ads are placed by local people that occasionally breed their own personal dogs. When you visit these puppies you are usually able to see the parents along with the puppies. In this situation you are able to observe the temperament of the father and the mother. You are also able to observe the puppies in relationship to the rest of the litter. Is the puppy you’re considering shy and reserved or bold and rambunctious?  Look closely; chances are his personality as a puppy will be his personality as an adult. Again, health is an important consideration here as well. Both of the puppy’s parents should be in good health and both should have had their hips and their eyes cleared for genetic defects.

If these conditions are met, you’ve greatly enhanced your odds of having a well-adjusted, healthy pet. If you end up with a screwed up schizophrenic dog, you can rest assured it is your fault not the breeders.

Professional Breeders: These are people that have devoted a big part of their lives to a specific breed of dog. They all believe their breed of dog is the absolute best. They are located all over the country and generally have multiple litters of puppies available throughout the year. Let me caution you, these people are serious about their dogs and are all just a little bit crazy. They invest a great deal of their time and money in trying to breed the healthiest dogs they possibly can. When you call to inquire about buying one of their puppies you are likely to be grilled like you’re interviewing for a job with Homeland Security. There is also a good chance they will make you sign a contract agreeing not to breed the dog you’re getting, unless they say its OK. By the time you’re done talking to them, you’ll be asking yourself why you don’t just go to the pet store. Hang it there and don’t give up. When you buy from a reputable breeder, they stand behind the dogs they sell. They will take the dog back if it doesn’t work out or a serious health issue arises. In my experience, professional breeders really do care about their animals and they want the best for them. This is not an emotional way to buy a dog. The breeders won’t allow it. Like it or not, they will make damn sure you know every possible thing about that breed before any cash trades hands.

One word of caution here, not every dog produced by a breeder is perfect. Be somewhat leery if the breeder says something like, “I have one puppy left, but I’m thinking about keeping it for myself.” Or, “I just had one puppy returned by someone who changed their mind.”  Two questions that would pop into my head are, “Why is this puppy the last one? And “Why was this puppy really returned.”  If the breeder can’t give you a comforting answer, seriously think about continuing your search. Searching for the perfect dog only takes a finite period of time. Living with an unstable crazed animal can last considerably longer.

To find reputable breeders, buy a copy of Dog World or Dog Fancy magazine and look in the breeder’s section. Breeders that are serious about their dogs advertise here. If a breeder is looking to make a quick buck, they’re not going to spend the money for an ad in these magazines. Pick up the phone and talk to as many of them as you can. You can also check online with the specific breed national associations. Many of these sites have lists of their breeders. The bad news with going the professional breeder route… Don’t expect to be a guest on Oprah any time soon.

Picking the Right Puppy: So what do you do once you find yourself in front of a litter full of ridiculously adorable bundles of fur? Again, put your emotions in your back pocket. You might think about picking the sad little puppy quietly sitting off by himself. Maybe this pathetic pup reminds you of your own troubled adolescence. Resist the temptation to try to save this unstable animal. After all, years of expensive psychotherapy didn’t help you; it won’t help this puppy either. The downside here is you run the risk of having an adult dog that is shy, skittish and may have a tendency to fear bite.

The other extreme is picking the most active dominant pup or the alpha dog. The alpha dog is in charge of everything. If you don’t have an alpha personality yourself, this dog will be in charge of you, your family and everything associated with you. When your friends come to visit you with their own dogs, you’ll have the sheer pleasure of learning how to break up dog fights. You will also learn how much money a veterinarian can really make.

After identifying the two most extreme puppies, take a close look at the remaining litter mates. Pick each puppy up and remove them from the rest of the pack. Examine their eyes, they should be clear and not runny or full of gunk (scientific term). As you’re holding the pup, roll him on his back and hold him there. He should struggle briefly then submit and settle down. Lightly touch and squeeze the pup’s feet and toes. He should object politely but not snap or bite at your hand. Set the puppy on the ground and walk away. See if he comes to you when you squat down, clap your hands and give him some embarrassing high pitch baby talk, “Dat’s a good baby, boy! Good boy!” Finally, stand up and drop your keys on the floor a few feet away from the puppy. He should startle but then show some interest in the keys. If he urinates and runs into the other room, check out the next puppy.

Spend some quality time with each pup and you will start to pick up on subtle differences. Remove the emotions from the equation a pick a pup that did not react to the extremes of your tests. Have I taken all the fun out of picking a puppy? If you think I have, try this.  Go visit the puppies by yourself, put them through your paces and narrow your choice down to two or three. Then, have the rest of your family come look at the puppies you’ve already picked. At this point, any of the pups that give your family that magical wink will be a good pick.

The Verdict: There is no 100% absolutely correct way to assure you of getting the next Lassie. Great family pets can come from all of the above-mentioned sources. Nightmare pets can also come from the same sources. That’s why it is so important to do your homework, leave the emotions on the kitchen table and do everything you possibly can to pick the right type of dog for your family. If you follow my suggestions, your chances of having a terrific new family member are great!

The Savvy Family picked their dog, Big Foot, in a completely emotional manner. Will this method have a happy ending? Will Timmy and Annie keep their blood oath pledge? Will Savvy Mom have to keep popping the Xanax? Will Savvy Dad start excitedly urinating on the floor when the doorbell rings? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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