Things I Should Know About Dogs Before I Adopt One

While lots of things are different between the various breeds, ages, and sizes of dogs, some things are pretty universal. These are some things we think you should know about dogs before you add one to your family.

You need to have learned:

A basic understanding of dog body language and behavior

We’ve covered this topic in the past, and there are fantastic illustrations, videos, and articles about dog body language to help you out. If you can’t read your dog, you can’t predict what he’ll do. If you can’t read dogs in general, you can’t guide your dog safely through interactions with other dogs.

Effective and appropriate training and responses to common problems

Dog trainers aren’t required to have any sort of education or licensing. Some of them may, but the schools or classes they attend aren’t standardized in any way. Even if you’re going to have your dog trained by someone else, it’s your responsibility to know enough about dog training to pick someone with a scientifically sound training philosophy and method.

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists  has a PDF on what to avoid in a trainer, and they’ve recently published a book written for average pet owners. It’s a great base upon which to build your understanding of dog behavior, training, and what scientific studies have revealed about the likely results of many methods. Other resources I like are the books and websites of Kathy SdaoDr. Sophia Yin, and Karen Pryor. More broadly, we’d like to warn against the charismatic, dramatic dog trainer. Those people tend to be dogmatic, and, unfortunately, WRONG more frequently than their less showy counterparts.

Where to get additional help and information for less common problems

You can start with your vet, behaviorists, local trainers, the Internet, or books, but you need to go ahead and figure out where and how you’ll get additional help if you need it. Look around and take stock of your resources before you need them. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to get so burnt out by a problem, that by the time they start looking for help, they’ve become so overwhelmed they just can’t or won’t make the effort. Also, the longer you allow a behavior to continue, the harder it will be to stop. Letting things go on is a recipe for your dog ending up in the shelter.

Common foods that are dangerous to dogs. Not just chocolate!

  • Onions and garlic can cause anemia when eaten in large quantities, or in smaller quantities when they’re fed regularly.
  • Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure, even in very small doses.
  • Fatty foods can cause pancreatitis, especially if a dog that doesn’t normally get table scraps gets a large fatty meal all at once. This is common around the holidays, when dogs may be given fatty turkey skin, or other treats they wouldn’t normally be allowed. A diet consistently too high in fat, such as a dog that is always getting into cat food, may also cause pancreatitis. Diabetes is a common outcome, and it’s a condition which requires long term management and a lot of expense. If you feed your dog scraps, it’s best to limit their intake of fatty foods. Lean meats and vegetables, such as sweet potato or carrot, are usually big winners with dogs.
  • Artificial sweeteners can cause a deadly drop in blood sugar. Xylitol, commonly found in gum, candies, and paint balls, is the most common culprit, but problems have been reported with most types of sugar substitute. If your dog has a sweet tooth, it’s best to indulge them in small portions with real sugar.
  • This list is not exhaustive, and doesn’t include the inedible parts of some garden plants, which may be toxic. There are some weird ones, for instance, green tomatoes contain solanine, which can cause severe stomach upset if eaten in large quantities. Ripe tomatoes are harmless. If you’re not sure, here’s a giant list that’s searchable and sortable.

New dog owners also need to accept the following realities:

Dogs need exercise

How much will vary based on the age and breed of the dog you choose, but you need to have a plan in mind and adopt a dog accordingly. There are lots of ways to exercise your dog. Some dogs just need to get out of the house, so a trip to the hardware store and a car ride will be plenty for them. Others need the ability to run off-leash for an hour or more every day to run off steam. Most dogs will fall somewhere in the middle of this range and require about 30 minutes of on-leash walking at a brisk pace and in various settings. Walking the same path every day is boring for you and your dog. You’ll need to engage both the dog’s muscles and their mind. For example, a run on a treadmill will certainly exercise your dog, but it does nothing to relieve mental boredom.

All dogs will bite if pushed far enough

This ties in closely with being able to read your dog. It’s very common to see pictures or videos of dogs where the dogs are practically SCREAMING for a break, and their owners are clueless. Eventually, even a very tolerant dog may bite. It’s very common for vets to find bites, fingernail marks, or other injuries from children after a bite incident. It’s also common for them to find things like arthritis, soft tissue damage, or ear infections that have triggered a normally tolerant dog to bite “out of the blue.”

You can’t ignore your dog’s signals saying they’ve had enough or aren’t feeling up to it today and expect them to remain peaceful members of your family. Listen to what your dog is telling you, and supervise interactions with children and strangers. By doing this, you won’t have to worry about a bite because you’ll never let things get that far. Ignore your dog’s signals, and eventually, they’ll learn that they don’t work and escalate directly to a bite. Dogs with aggression issues learned that peaceful cues that they are becoming anxious or overwhelmed don’t work. They learn to escalate their aggressive responses until it works. If you adopt a dog that’s already learned to jump directly to a bite, you’ll have to manage the behavior and teach them that retreating and more peaceful cues WILL work with you, consistently, every. single. time.

Dogs have accidents when they are first adopted

Even if dogs are housebroken, they still need to get used to the routines in their new home. There will be missteps during the first few weeks. You need to expect that, and have a plan.

If you can hold on to what we’ve just written, you’ll be starting your life with your new dog on the right foot.

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Hopes to someday train her dogs not to be douchebags.

7 thoughts on “Things I Should Know About Dogs Before I Adopt One”

  1. So, for those charismatic dog trainers, you mean Geezer Billann, right? (His whole YOU MUST BE DOMINANT OR THE DOG WON’T RESPECT YOU schtick is no good.)

    A friend of my dad’s has a Greater Swiss mix, and he’s an absolute mellow sweetheart — of course, he’s decidedly into “old man” territory. I imagine it took LOTS of training for both of them to get there. She also has a very calm personality, which probably helped (and she’s definitely a “positive reinforcement” rather than “punishment” person). Once I get to the point where I can keep up with a dog, I’ll ask her which methods she used or books she’d suggest.

    And, ugh, the “my dog is SO MELLOW, you kids can do what you want” attitude (especially when the dog’s pushed too far and snaps/growls/bites). No. It’s like the asshats who post videos of their kids tormenting their cats, and the cat scratches/bites/swats — and they say the CAT was at fault. No.

  2. Seconding all of this. Our new addition, who’s been with us a week and a half, just had to go to the vet for the third time for intestinal issues, which are making her have accidents (although not the worst, they’re still taxing to deal with).

    One thing I might add is: dogs are expensive. If you aren’t willing or able to make a financial commitment to having a healthy dog, you probably want to think twice about adopting.

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