Paws for thought: The pros and cons of getting a dog for Christmas

A dog is for life: What to consider before giving a pup as a present

A Christmas Chocolate labrador

A Christmas Chocolate labrador

 

Some 74 per cent of Irish people say they would be deterred from buying a dog if they knew it was coming from a puppy farm, according to a recent survey carried out by Dogs Trust, Ireland’s largest dog welfare charity.

However, 45 per cent of buyers didn’t take any steps to ensure their dog didn’t come from one. And 39 per cent didn’t visit their puppy before taking it home with them, while 21 per cent of dog owners say their dog was either delivered to their door or they met in a neutral location, such as a car park.

“Most people don’t buy dogs from pet shops anymore,” says Ciara Byrne of Dogs Trust Ireland, “and breeders are capitalising on social media, classifieds, and trade fairs, churning out puppies for profit.

“We recently rescued 25 dogs that had excessively long fur hung in filthy tangled mats, some with painful and itchy skin; others had ear and eye infections, while what we think was the mum was in complete distress. She had a metal bowl in her mouth and was spinning in wild circles.”

Always ask to see the mum. You need to see her interacting with the puppies, as sometimes breeders use a fake mum. If she has no interest in the pups, that’s a red flag

While Dogs Trust encourages adopting, there are steps you can take to ensure the dog you are purchasing is from an ethical breeder.

“It’s really hard to not let your emotions take over when you see a gorgeous little puppy, so we recommend that you ring ahead of time. Have a list of questions written out, such as what health issues the pups might have had, what vet they are registered with. If they can’t or are unwilling to answer these questions, if they suggest bringing the dog to you or meeting at a neutral place and if they seem uninterested in you and your family, these are warning signs and we would urge that you contact the ISPCA,” says Byrne.

If you decide to visit the pups, remain vigilant.

“Sometimes breeders will use another person’s house as a front. Always ask to see mum. You need to see her interacting with the puppies, as sometimes they use a fake mum. If she has no interest in the pups, that’s a red flag.

“If they have scabs on the skin, patches missing, are coughing or not alert, please don’t take them home with you. You may be saving that puppy but you will be supporting an industry that sometimes breeds dogs with members of their own family, resulting in their offspring having horrendously painful, chronic conditions.”

Lucie Dehe and her dog Wile-E: “My whole day is around her needs.” Photograph: Tom Honan
Lucie Dehe and her dog Wile-E: “My whole day is around her needs.” Photograph: Tom Honan

‘Big commitment’

It’s not just breeders that need to be grilled on their suitability. You need to give yourself the once over too. “A puppy is a really big commitment,” says Byrne. “It will grow into a dog, and be with you for approximately 13 years. Do you have the space, the energy, and the aptitude to care for a living thing? Can you afford it – not just dog food, but vet bills, insurance, grooming, and emergency procedures? The majority of people who surrender their dogs haven’t thought long and hard enough of what it entails to raise a dog when they adopt it, and that can have a terrible effect on the dog.”

The comedian Bill Burr once quipped that you don’t go to death row to pick your new best friend. Many adult dogs who end up in a pound will have behavioural difficulties.

“Older dogs come with a history and probable cause for their relinquishment, which may or not be known to the shelter or new owner,” says Jim Stephens, a behaviour consultant to the Irish Kennel Club. “A re-homed dog can take up to two months to settle into his new surroundings and the owner thinks ‘everything is okay’. Then these behaviours come to the forefront. It has issues with other dogs and it lunges at them while on the leash; it wees on the carpet; it chews at the furniture.”

“We expect dogs to just slot in wherever they are,” adds Anne Rogers, training and behaviour consultant with A Dog’s Life and director and tutor with animal education institution AniEd. “And when they don’t and exhibit stress-related behaviour, they are labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘dominant’, and ‘difficult’.”

I advise people to ask themselves what sort of dog-life can they provide. How much time can you reasonably invest in helping your dog have the best dog-life possible?

Pet owners and the public in general vastly underestimate the management and work involved in working through behaviour issues, Rogers says. “Even simple training issues, like loose-leash walking, take much time, commitment and skill, so when dealing with more escalated issues the resources and investment is much greater.

“I advise people to ask themselves what sort of dog-life can they provide. How much time, per day, per week, per month, per year can you reasonably invest in helping your dog have the best dog-life possible? Accommodations and adjustments will be necessary to your lifestyle, to your home and to your goals and expectations.”

“I was completely naive,” says Edel Banks who adopted her red setter/border collie cross Buddy from a working farm, where he had failed as both a gun dog and a herder. “I thought ‘throw a lead on him and bring him from the country, no bother’.”

Her first indication that things were not going well was when he threw up in her car.

‘Incredibly frightening’

“He had confidence problems because he had not been exposed to things when he was younger and the move was incredibly frightening. He’d leap over walls when he heard the rubbish truck or see a double-decker bus.

“I made so many mistakes. I would push him too hard to interact with other people instead of telling them to leave him alone, which undermined his trust in me.”

And when she adopted another dog, Jessie, to help his confidence, his constant state of high alert agitated the pup. “Until one day, Jessie pinned Buddy under the table.”

We treat dogs in a way that’s convenient to us. If we gave dogs more outlets for dog behaviour, we would have way less problems

It was at this point she took the dogs to Rogers. “She flipped everything I thought about them. They are both border collies, who I had always read were high energy, so I was doing lots of agility training with them, exercising them like crazy.”

Rogers encouraged less intense play and to focus on skills that were conducive to Buddy’s natural instincts.

“She noticed Buddy wasn’t really sniffing in the way one would expect a dog to. So we played sniffing games, where I’d hide a treat, scatter his food in the bushes or bury it and when he sniffed it out he would be rewarded.”

“We treat dogs in a way that’s convenient to us,” says Lucie Dehe, a canine behaviour and training technician with AniEd and manager of The Happy Dog House Day Care. “We are the only animals who want food out of a bowl. They like to sniff stuff out, stalk, hunt, tear it apart. That’s how they eat. If we did more of that with our dogs, gave more outlets for dog behaviour, you would have way less problems. They’d be less likely to destroy furniture, less likely to bark and howl if they had to hunt for their food rather than wolfing it down in 10 seconds.”

I come home on my lunch break and walk her with her, and then I take her out again when it gets dark. My whole day is around her needs

Dehe adopted her own dog, Wile-E, a German shepherd/ husky cross about a year ago. “We were actually supposed to get her puppies,” she says. “But on the day the pound came to do our home check, she miscarried.”

She decided to foster Wile-E instead. “She’d nurse her teddies, carry them around in her mouth, unsure what to do with them.”

As she recovered, Dehe noticed other worrying issues. “I noticed she was stalking birds, cats, children, anything that was smaller than her. She was studying, watching them, and observing their routines.”

When she took Wile-E to day care, she floored the first dog through the door with ruthless efficiency. “She punched it on the shoulder and the hip with her nose and it flopped over and she had it by its neck, in the space of a second. I knew if she went back to the pound they might give it to a family who were unable to deal with it, leading her to kill another dog, and ultimately be destroyed herself.”

So she took on the task of raising the dog herself. “I get up at 5.30am and walk her when no one else is around with other dogs. If the weather is bad, if it’s stormy or raining, that’s when we will go out to train. Teaching her how to bring herself down and relax when she’s getting too excited, teaching her to refocus on me, teaching her to ignore other dogs, teaching her to love her muzzle. I come home on my lunch break and walk her with her muzzle on, and then I take her out again when it gets dark. My whole day is around her needs.”

Dehe frets when on holidays, as some kennels roll their eyes when she gives them her list of instructions. But she is seeing the results of her hard work. “Wile-E has a few dog friends now who she’ll run around with in the dog park and she’s not a threat to kids. My nieces and nephews might come over and she can be around them.

“I don’t think she will ever be 100 per cent, but she has a really good quality of life. She’s an amazing dog.”

Five tips for when you bring your dog home

1. Before introducing the dog to your family, prepare your children by showing them books and films with dog characters.

2. You can make the move easier for the dog by bringing a blanket or a toy from the kennel with it, so when you put it in their bed they recognise it as their place,” says Ciara Byrne. “And use common sense. Don’t overcrowd them, or get too excited when you first bring them into the room.”

3. Remember, getting dogs at Christmas can trigger behaviour problems. “They’ll be smuggled into bedrooms, smothered in attention, given the rule of the house. And then everyone goes back to work and school and their world falls apart,” says Jim Stephens.

4. For Lucie Dehe, golden rule number one is to give dogs a choice. “If they don’t want to be petted or interact, that’s okay. With any husbandry task, handling or other human interaction they need to have a choice and can say ‘not now please, I don’t like it’.”

5. Anne Rogers recommends you seek help the minute problems arise. “Most of the child-bite cases have involved multiple bites over time and help is often not sought until there is a serious bite or as a last resort.”

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