Getting a Dog


Seth Holladay

A few months ago, I brought home a wonderful dog named Penny. This is a good time to reflect on the process of getting a dog, bringing them home, and adapting to this major life change.

Finding a Dog

There are a few different types of places you can get a dog and it's worth considering the pros and cons of each path.

Breeders may help you get your dream pet, but they often engage in questionable practices, including contributing to unsustainable population growth of animals. Shelters and rescue organizations are a great way to help an animal in need of a home, however they require more paperwork and their animals may have behavioral issues that not everyone can handle. In our case, Morgan and I got Penny from Southpaws Express, an organization that rescues dogs from the southern United States and finds homes for them in the northeast. A great idea, given that many dogs are better suited to cooler climates.

Keep in mind that getting a dog from a rescue organization involves some trade-offs. You won't be winning any competitions with your perfect poodle, since purebred dogs are very rare in shelters and rescue homes. On the other hand, though, your mixed breed dog will be healthier genetically. That is better for the dog, of course, but also means fewer trips to the vet for you, assuming they have been taken care of otherwise - which may or may not be the case.

Another wonderful upside of adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue is simply the amazing amount of diversity and surprise that you will find in these dogs. When Morgan and I first began talking about getting a dog, a six-year-old German Shepherd and Husky mix was nowhere near what I had in mind. But we hit it off as soon as we met Penny, and now that we have her, it is hard to imagine having adopted anyone else. She has so much personality and, in some ways, that probably comes from her complex and troubled past.

First Impressions

Just as a first impression is important between humans, so is your initial meeting with a dog. Some things you can do to make the experience go smoothly include:

Meet in a neutral place. We met Penny at a pet supply store, which was convenient for us and a happy time for her, but a quiet park or the beach would make good options, too. Greet the dog on their terms, in a dog-friendly way. Remember that dogs greet each other differently than humans do. You probably don't want to sniff their butt, but they probably don't want to shake your hand, either. Don't force anything. Approach them calmly and with your palms face down. If they aren't happy right away, give them some space and try again later - perhaps after a snack or potty break. Quickly establish that you are the boss. The sooner you do this, the fewer power struggles you will have later. Be friendly and get the dog to do some tricks, if they know any. Take them on a short walk. Stand up tall and don't kneel down too often, until they get the message. Going Home

This is a big moment for you and for your dog. There is a lot to do to prepare, especially if your dog has known behavioral or medical problems, such as chewing random items, relieving themselves indoors, etc.

Some preparation tips:

Have extra cleaning supplies on hand, such as various soaps and shampoos, cloths, paper towels, etc. I quickly regretted not doing this when Penny marked her territory indoors, despite being house trained. She seemed to know this was her new home instantly, which was very exciting, until I ran out of paper towels. Thoroughly dog-proof the house. This involves getting all small objects out of your dog's immediate reach, as well as removing anything that looks remotely appetizing or could be confused for a chew toy. We had an old couch that was flaking off pieces of black pseudo-leather, which I thought might turn into a giant dog toy. Thankfully, all Penny wanted to do was lay on it - could've been much worse. Have a crate or other secure place where you can leave your dog for a while, in case they need to calm down or you're worried about their behavior while you are sleeping. Or in case they react badly to guests that come over. Think about ways that your dog may escape. Remember that they are going to be eager to explore their new environment. They may not stay where you want them to. Do people come to the door regularly? If you have a yard with a fence, could the dog dig under it? Be ready in case these things happen. Don't put off getting all of the appropriate tags for your dog. When it comes time to bring them home for the first time, make sure you do a proper greeting with them outside. Everyone who lives there should do so. You should walk in the door first and the dog should follow. Once inside, have them sit if you can, maybe feed them a bit, and of course bring them around to smell everything, so they know it's yours.

Forming a Bond

An easy way to just about anyone's heart - including a dog's - is to give them food. Mealtime marks the beginning and end of every day. It is a ritual that your dog looks forward to, providing plenty of opportunity to bond over. Doing tricks for snacks can also be a fun activity that reinforces your bond.

Penny is always happy to be fed, but for us, the real bond started to form when I began grooming her on a regular basis. Do not underestimate the power of this. Dogs spend a lot of time grooming each other in the wild and you may find it soothing yourself. If your dog is resistant, make sure you are calm and using tools that are comfortable for them, and slowly give them treats while you make progress. Once you get into the motion of it, you can let your mind wander and just have fun. I now use this time to plan my day or reflect on things, which is a healthy habit I do more often than before.

Adapting to Change

A lot of small things change when you get a dog. Penny has some minor separation anxiety, and I am not prepared to leave her home alone much yet, which means she comes with us everywhere we go. However, many places do not allow dogs, which makes it hard to do basic things like get groceries. We still make the trip together to get out of the house and, thankfully, being in a relationship means my partner and I can take turns doing the shopping. But it is decidedly boring sitting in the car or walking around the parking lot compared to shopping together as we used to. And what if taking turns wasn't even an option? It is surprising to me just how much different this feels. A small but meaningful part of freedom has been sacrificed for this. Our meals end up being different. And on a practical level, it's harder to help each other out now, as someone is often holding the leash or otherwise occupied. All of these and more are new circumstances that we must adapt to.

The solution to many of these problems is to simplify your routine and train your dog. Penny has done a wonderful job at learning new tricks and, with time, hopefully I will be able to leave her home alone, in which case we can return to our old shopping routines. But in the meantime, life is just different, and that doesn't have to be such a bad thing. I found a nearby skate park that I never knew existed, until I took Penny for a walk during one of those trips to the grocery store. It is more than worth it.

Dogs are resilient creatures, and we ought to be, too.