So you have decided to buy/adopt a dog as a family pet. Congratulations! You won’t find a more loving and loyal companion. Research has shown that owning a pet makes people healthier, keeps loneliness away, teaches kids responsibility, teaches adults love and commitment, and makes families happier. But having a pet can either be a wonderful experience, or it could put you off animals for life. As a pet parent to a seven-year-old Labrador-mix, I’ve come to realise the value of following a certain approach while adding a four-legged member to the family. These are a combination of attitudes and behaviours that can help you develop a wonderful relationship with your dog. Whether you are a long-time pet owner or trying it out for the first time, these principles will help you be a better pet parent.
The first principle—Take responsibility
Having a pet and owning a pet are two different things. Those of us who had dogs as kids might think that we know everything there is to it. But having a dog during your childhood does not automatically mean you will be a good dog owner. As kids, you might have fed your dogs, played with them and walked them. But, it was your parents who ensured the financial and physical support that is required for a dog’s health and wellbeing. They were willing to accept dog hair everywhere in their home, chewed-up furniture, and complaints from neighbours; they paid for dog training, vaccinations, and dog food; and they managed doggy ailments. It does help to have some prior knowledge of dealing with dogs, but nothing that an inexperienced person cannot pick up.
Being prepared to take full responsibility for another living being is the key. Even if you get a dog for your kids or other dependents, you will always be the owner.
Your role as a pet owner can be the most rewarding and the most demeaning of jobs at the same time. You may be the CEO of a company, but if you are not prepared to pick up your dog poop from your neighbour’s garden, then don’t get a dog. Everything the dog does will be your fault and everything the dog needs will be your responsibility. The buck stops with you. Accept this first.
The second principle—Understand your dog
Some of us think that our dog is like our child, a human baby. Others think it is a pet—to be fed, exercised and occasionally coddled. Some think it is a guard, a companion, another mouth to feed. Some put up with it since their kids/partners won’t part with it. It doesn’t matter how you relate to your dog, each of us is different. What is more important is how you expect your dog to relate with you. You may treat your dog as your child, but don’t expect it to become a human child. Dogs are pack animals, and perfectly suited to being a member of your family. You can coddle your dog all you want, but you need to understand its needs.
A guard dog will be territorial. It will defend its space, even against you, especially if you have not established your dominance. That is the way they are, that is how they have been bred, for thousands of years. It doesn’t mean that it has become feral or undisciplined or loves you less. Never go against their instincts or blame them for something that is in their genes. They are animals, so they will obviously have animal instincts.
When you are getting a dog home, understand its breed and the background of its parents. It will give you insight on how it will react to situations. Then you can mould your pet’s behaviour through training and interactions. Dogs love routine and leadership. Cesar Millan, a leading dog behaviourist known as the Dog Whisperer, says, “The most important thing that we have to provide every day is the feeling that we are the pack leader, we set the rules and the boundaries and then we love. Most people get a dog because they need somebody to love. So they are going after what they need, not what the dog needs. And that, to me, creates instability and imbalance. Dogs see humans as a soft energy, they don’t follow a lovable leader or a spiritual leader; they follow a dominant one.”
A dog is a dog is a dog. Even if you love it as you would a human, expect it to behave like a dog.
The third principle—Lay firm roots
Dogs are not easy to transport around. If you are in a transferable job and do not have an established home, a dog might not be the best pet for you. Pet travel is expensive or unreliable, or both. There are many examples of pets dying in transit due to lack of care, as the owners moved cities. Shifting countries is even more difficult, with many countries having stringent animal transfer protocol and quarantines. This is not to say that it can’t be done. But it is such a hassle for the owner that many choose to part with their pets. And while humans have the higher brain power of logic and learn to move on, dogs get traumatised with their expulsion from their pack and from being deprived of all the affection that they gave and received. Some never recover.
If you are not assured of a constant home for the duration of the dog’s life of 10 – 15 years, I would urge you to go to an animal shelter and meet an abandoned dog. You’ll understand that even if you may arrange for the pet to be moved to another family, its life will never be the same.
Having someone to look after the dog when you are not there should be an essential pre-requirement before getting a dog. You will not be around all the time, with work, travel, vacations and other commitments. But your dog will always love you. Whether you have been away for five minutes, five hours or five weeks, no one will give you as rousing a welcome home as your faithful companion. Watch him go giddy with delight at your arrival and you know, you are loved and you are home.
This was first published in the June 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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