Having a dog has arguably been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I know that so many people out there yearn for the fuzzy snuggles of a four-legged companion.
But just because everyone wants a dog, doesn’t mean everyone should have one. Just because you can afford one, doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your lifestyle. Just because your friends have one, doesn’t mean you need one. Just because you grew up with dogs, doesn’t mean you’ll be a great dog owner.
My work as a volunteer and foster home in dog rescue taught me a lot about dog ownership, and it showed me that even people who look great on paper sometimes don’t understand what, exactly, they are signing up for. Our full animal shelters, euthanization practices and rates of owner surrender are testament to the epidemic of unprepared dog ownership. Today I want to talk a little bit about some of the things many people fail to think about when considering dog ownership, and hope that it will help you have honest conversations with yourself if you are thinking about adding a dog to your family
DO YOU REALLY HAVE THE TIME?
In my early days of volunteer work I would conduct home interviews, during which I would sit down with potential dog adopters and assess their application, home environment and preparedness for dog ownership. The part of the interview that almost always hung people up were questions about how long the dog would be home alone. For most people, the answer is 8 hours. Because they work an 8 hour day. But then you ask them what their commute time is. Then you ask them how often they go to the gym after work. How often they have happy hour plans. How often they go grocery shopping on their way home. An 8 hour work day can very quickly turn into 10+ hours alone for a dog, and that is not okay no matter the dog’s age or obedience level.
8-9 hours should really be the high end of how long you will leave your dog home alone, and that needs to be built up over time. Puppies can go 2-3 hour stretches, and you can build these increments up over their first year. Puppies cannot be expected to hold their bladder longer than a couple hours, and not providing proper bathroom breaks can be detrimental to potty training for dogs of any age.
So, assess your day and how long your dog would be alone. And don’t just think about M-F, consider your weekends, too. If you leave home at 5 and and won’t be home until the bar closes, that’s likely an 8+ hour stretch. What activities do you do on Saturday or Sunday that take you out of the house for more than 8 hours? You either need to have a partner or roommate whose schedule overlaps with yours, be prepared to pay for daycare (up to $200 per week depending on where you live) or plan to accommodate for and pay a dog walker.
Keep in mind, also, that leaving your dog home alone can be hard on you emotionally. Walter is usually only kenneled for an 8 hour stretch once a week (usually on Saturdays while we’re biking) and just doing it once a week sometimes breaks my heart. Are you the type of person who would let that negatively impact your social life? Your career? Your mental health? Putting that loving dog into a kennel and walking out the door isn’t easy, so it’s something to think long and hard about.
Along with “alone time”, think long and hard about how much exercise a dog needs and how willing you’ll be to make time for that in your schedule. Most dogs, depending on breed, need between 30-60 minutes of activity per day. That doesn’t mean walking laps around the house while you’re at work, that means a good walk, run, interactive play or romp at the dog park. Do you have an extra hour in your day? If you’re the type of person who always tells yourself you’re going to walk or run more, and yet you’re 30 and have never made the commitment, please don’t think that a dog is going to change this habit for you. Start walking more or running before you commit to getting a dog. Too many people get a pet as an “excuse” for themselves to get healthier, but more often than not you see them just force the dog into their (often sedentary) lifestyle. Make the change first, start chiseling out that 30-60 minutes per day, and if its working for your lifestyle add a dog!
DOES THIS DOG FIT INTO YOUR LONG-TERM PLAN?
A lot of dog rescues also actively work with owner surrender situations. This is when an owner can no longer care for their dog and they need to find it a new home. Sometimes it’s an unavailable owner (hospitalization/illness, aging, death, incarceration) or unfortunate circumstances (family member developed allergy, new step-son with fear of dogs, etc). Sometimes these situations are unavoidable, but one of the scenarios that is *so frequent it makes me want to scream* are dogs between the ages of 1-3, whose owners purchased them as a puppy shortly after getting married, then they had a baby and found themselves with a newborn baby and a 1 year old puppy (yes, dogs are puppies for a few years) and now they have no time for the puppy. The puppy develops behavioral issues. The owners end up annoyed and fed up, or worse, the dog ends up biting the baby. Ask anyone you know who works or volunteers in dog rescue, and they will tell you that this scenario is disturbingly common.
You know the old joke about how women always chop their hair right after their wedding (*raises hand* chopped off 12 inches 4 months after our wedding) well, I think there could also be a saying about how all married couples suddenly get the urge to get a puppy (*raises hand again* we had a dog by our 7 month anniversary). Especially now, when so many of us are opting to delay parenthood. Its hard to suppress the maternal or paternal urge we feel after coupling up. The hormones and natural inclination to take care of something is there and can be strong! A lot of us end up with pets. But please understand that how and when you add a dog to your family should be part of your family planning discussion. Are handling the needs of a baby and a young dog something you’re prepared for? Is it something you have time for? The money for? Does your budget have room for both childcare and doggy daycare? Don’t expect it to just work itself out, because the statistics show us that young couples with a new baby often feel overwhelmed, and the first thing to go is the dog.
My plea here is this: if you know that you’ll be entering parenthood within the next 1-2 years, strongly consider adopting a dog that is 2-3+ years old, so that by the time you have a baby in the home the dog has hopefully emerged from it’s own period of “infancy” and is ready to be a better companion.
Along with family planning, think about your living situation. A lot of apartments don’t allow dogs. How might that effect your future career choices or relocation options? Will it force you to turn down your dream job? Will you have to pay higher rent? Will you have to live in a less desirable location?
What about partners? If you aren’t in a relationship are you okay bringing a 20 year commitment into one? What if you meet the perfect person, but they are allergic to dogs? Don’t like big dogs? Don’t like dogs who shed? Can’t believe you have 3 dogs? While it might be easy to say that you won’t care….thousands of dogs end up surrendered every year because of situations like this. Take the time to think about some of these variables in your life and how a dog could impact them.
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
Buying a dog can be expensive, even adopting can come with significant costs. So you have the money to adopt or purchase your dog, but will you be able to adequately provide for the dog financially for the next 20 years? Will it mean sacrificing things you aren’t willing to give up? Will it cause stress for you or your relationship to have these expenses? What if the unthinkable happens and you end up without an income for an extended period of time? Do you have the means to set up a safety net that is big enough to cover the needs of you and your dog?
It’s easy to estimate and plan for the recurring costs of owning a dog, but I think the hidden costs of dog ownership are more than people really think they are. Especially if you are a young person who will regularly need a dog walker when you are gone for 8+ hours, or will require long-term boarding when you travel for work. Here is a breakdown of some of our dog ownership expenses:
Recurring Monthly Costs
Grain-Free Food $40/mo
Treats – $20/mo
Grooming – $35/mo
Flea/Tick Treatment – $18/mo
Heartworm Treatment – $10/mo
1 weekend of boarding/sitting – $70
TOTAL: $193 per month
Recurring Annual Costs
Annual Vet Check-up and Vaccinations – $150
Annual pet license – $40
Annual Park Permit – $60
TOTAL: $200 per year
ANNUAL ESTIMATE: $2566
And $2566 includes just the expenses you can expect, and excludes a lot of up-front necessities like a kennel, leash, puppy classes, etc. Plus, the unexpected can add up, too. In Walter’s first year of life he had kennel cough (a $400+ vet bill) and growths on his legs that were surgically removed ($500 later) as well as his neutering operation ($250). When we travel we sometimes have to board him for 5-10 nights (a cost of $200-400+). If your dog has $1000 in emergency care in it’s first year, will that work for you? If you get sent to Dallas for a week for work, can you afford to board your dog? If you find a $200 ticket to Mexico, are you okay with the fact that $250 in dog boarding makes that getaway a little less affordable? Even the expected cost of $193 per month is a notable amount of a lot of people’s monthly budget. How will that amount impact your spending or saving?
It’s also important to think about professional training, and knowing that there’s a good chance that at some point in their life your dog might require one-on-one or group training with a professional. Even as someone who raised 14 foster dogs, we have still relied on expert help with Walter for certain issues. When you own a dog, you are their advocate, and it is your job to make sure they can be successful members of society. Sometimes that responsibility might come with expensive training (maybe only $150 for a class, $300 for some in-home sessions, or as much as $1000 for an intensive program).
I’d estimate that when all is said and done we spend closer to $3500-4000 per year on Walter, and although he owns a lot of bow-ties I don’t think we treat him above and beyond how a dog should be treated. $3500 is a couple of really nice vacations, or a big chunk of annual childcare costs. Can you raise a dog on less than $193 per month? Absolutely. Some people don’t have to spend any money on boarding or dog walkers, and buying cheaper food or opting not to treat your dog for fleas or heartworm might save you $20-50 per month, but might also end up costing you hundreds or thousands of dollars unexpectedly. You need to recognize that dog ownership has both fixed and unexpected costs, and you should take both into account when you’re making the decision.
ARE YOU PREPARED TO MAKE A 20-YEAR COMMITMENT?
You might notice I keep calling dogs a “20-year commitment” and you might think I sound like a real optimist. And I am. I’d love for Walter to live to be 20. A lot of us have this preconceived notion that most dogs have a lifespan of 8-12 years. And that’s not necessarily incorrect, but with improvements in food and veterinary care we are seeing dogs live longer and longer, especially dogs who are well cared for. When you are assessing the decision to get a dog, and are thinking about how they fit into your life, why not be an optimist and assume that dog could be around for the next 20 years? Hopefully, that will be the case, right? Hopefully your dog will become a long-term companion who will be by your side for the foreseeable future. Make the decision thinking about the cost of 20 years of dog walking or doggie daycare in mind. Make the decision thinking about where you want to be in 20 years and how a dog fits into that plan. How old are you and will you be alive in 20 years? What happens to your dog if something happens to you? If you don’t feel confident that you can make a 20 year commitment, then consider other options. There are so many great dogs living out their final years scared and alone in shelters, and often the older dogs have the most love to give. A dogs chances of being adopted drop dramatically if they are over the age of 6, but a 6 year old dog often has 5-10( or more!) very healthy and active years left.
(On a side-note, Jack Russell Terriers routinely live to be 15+ years old. I met a man who had three and they lived to be 15, 17 and 18. So, I’m not totally off-base with my optimism. But also, if you don’t want a dog for the next 20 years, avoid a JRT.)
If your lifestyle isn’t suitable for full-time dog ownership at all, perhaps consider fostering or serving as a dog sitter for foster dogs. Both are fairly flexible roles: fostering is usually a 1-3 month commitment depending on the dog, and dog sitting is usually something you volunteer for when you’re available. It’s a great way to get to spend time with a dog, test out the waters of dog ownership, get lots of free snuggles + kisses, help save a life, and give back to your community. If you are in the midwest and are interested in adopting, fostering or dog sitting I cannot recommend Fetch Wisconsin Rescue enough. They are the organization I previously worked with and they facilitate adoptions anywhere in the midwest (or beyond).
So, there you have it. Am I an expert? Probably not. But these are the things that my experience as a dog owner and a dog rescue volunteer have taught me about dog ownership and the things potential owners should assess before making the decision. Dogs are incredibly loyal and loving companions, and it’s only fair that you bring them into your life with the intention of being as equally loyal and loving.
Think you’re ready for dog ownership? Then you’ll want to check out my 10 Favorite Dog Products before you go pick up fido.