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Thinking of Getting a Dog?

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The benefits of having pets are many, but so are the responsibilities

Patti Page’s 1952 song (“How Much is) that Doggie in the Window?” became a hit for a reason and it’s not entirely because it’s a catchy tune. Most of us can relate to a song about falling in love with a puppy at first sight. Yes, love at first sight exists, at least when it comes to dogs and other adorable, young animals. I should know because I have been instantly smitten myself.

But before you allow yourself to make an impulse decision, take a deep breath and think for a moment. There is much more to buying that puppy than the initial price tag. As Allen St. John wrote in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, “Here’s the truth in one sentence: The initial purchase price of a dog is a drop in the bucket compared to the other expenses of dog ownership.” But the reasons that I recommend that you “pause to think” are not just financial.

A puppy needs training, time and love. A puppy will pee on your grandmother’s rug and chew on your beautiful, new boots. I had a friend who had a young puppy chew her kitchen cabinets when left alone in the kitchen one morning—all of her kitchen cabinets. Another woman came home to find her adorable Jack Russell Terrier puppy had not just chewed on her couch, but had actually chewed a foot wide hole into her couch to create a wonderful little puppy cave.

Dogs need exercise and regular check-ups at the vet. You may need to fence your property. Leaving town or even leaving the house for an entire day is a different equation for dog owners. (Hence the rising popularity of doggie daycare centers.) Let’s not forget about the public responsibility of having a dog. A dog that bites or is not socialized and is allowed to be in contact with people is dangerous. The consequences are serious. And then there is the lifespan of an average dog: 12 years. Having a dog means eventually losing that dog too… sad though it may be.

All of this said, the positive benefits of having and caring for animals is beyond comparison for many children and adults. There is a reason that 63% of American households have at least one pet. An article titled Can Pets Make You Happy? by Jennifer Horton states, “multiple studies indicate that pets are powerful forms of stress relief, lowering not only blood pressure but also harmful stress hormones like cortisol, which is associated with depression and anxiety, and elevating beneficial ones like oxytocin, which is linked to happiness and relaxation [source: Grimshaw]. Some people experienced increased output of endorphins and dopamines after just five minutes with an animal [source: Odenaal].” In addition to these positive effects, the lessons to be learned for children by having a pet–empathy, responsibility, the “circle of life,” and discipline– are invaluable.

As I write this, I look over at my Dalmatian, Pepper, sleeping on her bed in my office. Pepper has brought our family a lot of joy. She is a loved and valued member of our family, but just this morning she reverted to a habit I thought we had corrected by chasing a car that passed us. My husband and my short walk with the dog to get the newspaper turned into a chase after the dog while screaming and pleading for her to stop. We had a moment of real fear that she might get hurt, or worse.

Make sure you are ready for the responsibility of having a dog. The rewards are plenty, but don’t allow yourself to get so smitten as to think that it’s all going to be easy and that you are never going to argue over who feeds the dog, who has to give the dog a bath, or who gets to clean up the hair the dog has shed onto the floor… or, in my case, engage in some important remedial training… pronto. Lassie was a TV show…

Of particular concern is the situation where a dog in the home might pre-date a child. There is a lot of information available about how to introduce a dog to an infant or young child. Make sure you talk to your vet and learn all that you can before bringing home a baby or introducing a child to a home with a dog. It’s vital to remember that dogs are animals. We cannot expect them to react like people to new situations, no matter how trusted. The arrival of a new baby can be a traumatic experience for a dog.

And now Pepper raises her head. Naptime is over. She looks at me and makes a short groan to let me know that it is time for her dinner. (She has learned to do this trick with different members of our family on the same evening and it has led to her being fed twice on several occasions.) So off I go to feed the dog. “I’m feeding Pepper,” I announce around corners as I walk to the kitchen for all to hear. Seeing Pepper trot behind me wagging her tail makes me smile. I can’t help it. I guess I am still smitten.

[AUTHOR: Hilary Doubleday]

August 21, 2012

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