by Karen Idelson
It’s a common refrain in homes with kids: “I want a dog!”
So … should you or shouldn’t you? How do you find the right dog for your family? And how do you help that dog become a happy, well-trained addition to your home? Hollywood dog trainers, who specialize in finding the right dogs for appearances in movies or TV shows, also have the lowdown on how to bring the best possible pet into your own home.
Pups On a Budget
Start your decision-making process with a peek into your wallet. Dog food, treats, leashes, toys and obedience classes are part of the bargain when you welcome a canine companion into your home. If you travel out of town for holidays or vacations, you’ll also need to budget for boarding your pet or for a dog sitter. Even if you have friends or family willing to care for your pet for free, it’s important to have a backup in case they’re not available.
“When you’re away, the dog still needs to be exercised and fed,” says Brandon McMillan, a domestic and exotic animal trainer and host of Night on TV’s Animal Planet. “It’s going to be hard enough for the dog to be away from his family, so you’re likely to have fewer problems later if you have a good boarding facility or person who can give in-home care when you’re gone.”
Dogs, like people, also need routine medical care. That means budgeting for things like vaccinations, teeth cleaning, annual vet visits and flea and tick treatments.
Fees for injuries or illness can also run into the hundreds of dollars quickly if your dog needs X-rays, long-term medical care or surgical treatment. Though there are many excellent pet health insurance plans available now, sometimes they don’t cover all the costs involved.
“You might want to call a vet in your area and ask them what they charge for a routine visit, shots for things like rabies and kennel cough, just to get a sense of what the real costs of owning a dog might be for your family,” says John McCormick, an animal trainer with Los Angeles-based Birds and Animals, Unlimited, which trains animals for film and TV productions. “Break that down into what you’d have to set aside every week to cover those costs and be honest with yourself about whether it’s affordable.”
Adopting a dog should be a family decision, says McCormick, who trained dogs for the films Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Hotel for Dogs. “The dog is going to have to be walked and fed and he’ll need some attention, so it’s good to be sure everyone in the family is on board with the plan and ready to pitch in.”
McCormick suggests a test run, setting your alarm for the time you’d have to get up every morning to take the dog for his first walk of the day for a couple of weeks to see how it goes. Is your family excited by the idea of walking a dog every morning? Does it work with your family’s lifestyle and schedule?
If everyone is still on board after a dozen early wake-up calls, you’re ready to start looking for a pet.
The Perfect Match
“I always encourage people to check out shelters and rescues first,” says McCormick, who has found excellent dogs at shelters many times. “But you might even want to go to a dog park before that.” That’s because dog owners are great sources of honest information about the breed they have chosen, he says. Many of the people you see at a dog park will have adopted from rescue organizations and be able to recommend one to you.
Your goal is a breed – and an individual dog – with a personality that fits your family and lifestyle. “It’s a little thing called chemistry,” says McMillan. “If you’re at a shelter looking at dogs, try to find one who is curious and who wants to approach you. You have to let your dog pick you in the same way you’re trying to pick a dog. You should like each other.”
Do what you can to find out about the dog’s past; a dog from a shelter or rescue might have a troubled history. Has the dog lived with a foster family who can tell you how she does around children, other dogs, or cats? Can you meet the dog in a home environment and observe the pet’s behavior?
Before you adopt, make sure you’ve considered what to do if the dog ultimately doesn’t work out. “You need to know that if, after 30 days of working with the dog, the pet isn’t right for your family, that they are able to take the dog back,” says McMillan. “No one ever wants to think about that, but it’s better to ask now than later.”
The Learning Curve
Once you’ve adopted a dog – even one that is great with kids – you’ll need to supervise and educate your children about how to behave with their new pet. Kids want to hug, cuddle and play with their new dog, but dogs don’t see some behaviors in the same way that a child does.
“Kids don’t realize that they might be provoking a dog with a really innocent behavior like pulling a little bit on an ear, so you’ve got to watch them around a dog,” says McCormick. “The dog is going to have boundaries, too.”
Obedience classes are a great place to get educated, say McCormick and McMillan. Trainers can provide feedback on everything from housebreaking to how to walk a dog the right way. Kids can also build confidence by learning how to work with the family dog in a positive way.
Dogs Day By Day
Working and playing with the dog should be an everyday thing, because dogs are social creatures that want to be part of your life. It’s important to find a way to keep track and make sure your dog has been fed, watered, walked and received his fair share of attention.
“It’s a good idea to post a piece of paper near your front door, or somewhere that you’ll see it often, that lists the day, time and person who completed each task involved in caring for your dog,” says McCormick. “Trainers use that strategy because it’s easy to forget who has done what when you have a lot going on.”
Parents can use this paper to keep track of who is doing the chores associated with the dog, rewarding kids with an allowance or special treat once they’ve done a certain number of tasks with the dog.
“When you give your dog the time he needs, you’re not going to have a lot of problems because he’ll be happy,” says McMillan. “Dogs can be just like kids and act out when they don’t get the positive attention they want.”
When you make your list of doggie chores, don’t just stick to the basics. McCormick and McMillan also recommend continued training to keep your dog’s mind busy. Once your dog has learned the basic commands, mix in a few other commands just for fun.
“Your dog wants to have that feeling that he’s making you happy with him,” says McCormick. “So, if you’re patient and work with your dog a little every day on some new tricks, you’ll exercise his mind and you’ll both get a feeling of accomplishment.” And you’ll be happy together.
Karen Idelson is a freelance writer and mother.
The Top Family-Friendly Dogs
If properly trained and embraced as a beloved member of the family, any breed can make a great pet. But some dogs are considered more “kid-friendly” than others and, as a result, have become extremely popular among families. The American Kennel Club (AKC) currently ranks the five most popular breeds in the United States as:
1. Labrador retriever – By far America’s most popular dog, Labs have a reputation for being playful, hardworking and affectionate toward children. The Lab is easily trained and highly respected for his prowess at many jobs: as a guide dog for the disabled, a search-and-rescue dog, and for narcotics detection.
2. German shepherd – These dogs are noble in appearance and character. Their courage, steadfast heart and keen senses have endeared them to families for generations. Active and outdoorsy, German shepherds are very fond of children and make wonderful companions.
3. Yorkshire terrier – Affectionately known as “Yorkies,” these dogs make great family companions. Small in size, they have big personalities and are known for being brave, determined, investigative and energetic. Because they’re so small, they don’t need as much exercise, but they do crave frequent interaction with people and their beautiful, long coats need regular brushing.
4. Beagle – Beagles love being around people and other animals. They are gentle, happy companions who thrive on affection and attention. They’re also clever, quick and curious, and they need plenty of active exercise.
5. Golden retrievers – Sporty, easy to train and strong are all traits you’ll find in a Golden retriever. But the most outstanding trait is character. They’re outgoing, happy, trusting and devoted companions to people of all ages.
To learn more about different dog breeds, visit the American Kennel Club website at www.akc.org.