Ah puppies. We all love them, don’t we? I mean, who can resist their sweet little faces, soft velvety fur and big innocent eyes. But if you’re thinking of adding a puppy to your family it pays to look beyond the millions of cute images you’re likely to see on the Internet and social media. Take it from someone who knows – and who is still guilty of posting said images on social media – puppies are seriously hard work. When we brought our Hungarian Vizsla, Brody, into our family nearly five years ago, I delighted in showing off my adorable puppy in an assortment of cute images – ‘here’s Brody stealing socks from the children – how cute!’ – ‘here’s Brody in the plant pots – how adorable!’ – ‘here’s Brody systematically destroying the garden – how hilarious!’ Despite the cheery outward facade, though, inside I was struggling. As a full time Mum to two little boys, and working part time as a childminder and childcare training provider, adding a puppy to the family – albeit one as cute as Brody – quite literally turned my life upside down for the best part of a year. It wasn’t that we had an unusually naughty puppy (although he was pretty naughty), or that I had particularly difficult children (I’d say my boys have actually been quite easy). What we did have, however, was a perfect storm of circumstances that very nearly brought me to my knees. Whilst this might all sound a bit melodramatic, it’s likely I was not alone in finding myself in this sort of situation – when you consider that the Dogs Trust reported receiving nearly three and half thousand calls from people looking to give up their dogs in the 30 days following Christmas last year, you start to understand the scale of dog ownership problems in this country (and that’s just from one agency).
But don’t worry – this isn’t a sad story about my puppy being given up. Nor is it a criticism of anyone who has ever given up a dog – people sometimes find themselves in impossible situations which are never mine to judge. What this is is an honest account of what living with a puppy and a young family is like, and a guide to helping you ensure that bringing home a pup is definitely the right choice for you*. If it helps in one situation where a dog might be given up purely because a family has been ill informed or unprepared, then it’s served its purpose. So without further ado, here are my top tips for anyone considering adding a four legged family member to their brood.
* I should make some mention of rescuing or rehoming a dog here, as many people believe this is always a better option than purchasing a puppy. Whilst this is something I totally understand (and in many ways agree with), when we brought Brody into our family, for various reasons, we felt a puppy was the best option. This may well have been misjudged and I certainly wouldn’t rule out rehoming a dog in future. For now though, it’s not a topic I have any experience of and so I have chosen not to cover it.
1. DECIDE IF GETTING A DOG IS REALLY RIGHT FOR YOU
Before even getting started on the survival tips, it’s worth considering if getting a dog is really the right option for your family. If you’re considering a new puppy because your children are pestering you for one I’d urge a bit of caution. When we got Brody it was mainly because I wanted a dog – my kids were due to be starting school and nursery and I was definitely looking for something to fill my rapidly expanding maternal void. Despite that, I still found it very difficult having a new puppy, and even with the best of intentions, most children I know who’ve pestered their parents for a dog inevitably end up leaving all the hard work to Mum and Dad. If you’re fine with that, then certainly go ahead, but it’s something worth spending a bit of time considering to help avoid resentment and frustration in the future. Similarly, it’s worth considering your lifestyle and the time you have available to care for a new puppy. If you work outside the home you might have to consider the cost of doggy day care or a dog walker (unless you’re lucky enough to have friends or relatives who will happily help you in caring for your pooch.) It’s also worth thinking about the cost of raising a puppy into adulthood. We spend £40-£50 a month on food for Brody, plus there are other costs including insurance, equipment (leads, collars etc.), as well as the odd vets bill, toys and treats. Finally, it’s easy to forget that puppies quickly grow into adult canines who require daily exercise and stimulation. I spend 1-2 hours of every day exercising Brody and it’s extremely rare for him to go without his daily outing. We chose an active breed to fit in with our family’s lifestyle (of course there are many other breeds who require less exercise), but even as a pretty outdoorsy person I’d be lying if I said there isn’t the odd day where I could do without it. It’s part of the commitment we made when we got him and it’s something I’ve learned to build into my daily routines along with the school run, blogging, homework, after school clubs and whatever else comes knocking. If you can fit caring for a dog properly into your family’s lifestyle, then you’re likely to find that the rewards you get back from owning a dog are pretty much amazing.
2. CONSIDER THE TIMING
Once you’ve decided that getting a puppy is definitely the right option for your family, it’s worth spending some time considering when best to introduce a puppy to your household. We got Brody at what seemed like an ‘ideal’ time for our family – his arrival occurring just a week after my youngest started morning nursery and my eldest started school. I assumed I’d have plenty of time to get toilet training and the like sorted while the littlest was at nursery, but in reality it turned out that my son loathed nursery and I ended up with several months of stressful to-ing and fro-ing between tearful episodes in the school cloakroom and a puppy barking hysterically when I returned home.
When Brody was 12 weeks old, my husband went away on a work trip, which ended up coinciding with our 2 children coming down with a projectile vomiting bug, and me trying to prepare for a training course I was delivering for the first time ever that weekend. I have vivid memories of sitting in our hallway late at night, on the phone to my husband, trying to find out how to use the carpet cleaner, while watching in resignation as Brody peed all over the kitchen floor. The poor soul had been trying to tell me he needed to go to the toilet, but in my stressed out, sleep deprived state, I just hadn’t understood.
I could go on to recount a series of sorry episodes from these early days, but suffice to say, in hindsight, we probably could have planned things better, and it might have been easier to wait until the kids were properly settled into school and nursery before bringing a puppy into our lives. In reality of course, there’s very rarely a perfect time to do anything, but looking back on those early months with Brody I can’t help thinking I sold everybody in our family – including myself – just a little bit short.
3. DO YOUR RESEARCH
If you’re hanging on in here, and are still convinced that a puppy is the right choice for your family, then doing your research before you bring home your new addition will really help pay dividends in the long run. Think about what sort of breed will suit your family’s lifestyle, find out all you can about them, and try to meet and spend time with a few dogs of varying ages to get an idea what to expect from the dog you’ve chosen. We researched breeds for months before getting Brody, and even made a 200-mile round trip to meet an adult Hungarian Vizsla before contacting any breeders. What we omitted to do was spend time with any Vizsla puppies – or puppies of any breed for that matter – yet if we had spent time around puppies or adolescent dogs it would probably have been very helpful in terms of our expectations of what the first few months would realistically be like. Similarly, it pays to do your research when it comes to buying a puppy, and although I’m no expert in this area, I would urge you to follow advice from animal welfare bodies in terms of finding a reputable breeder, visiting the puppies in their own environment and always, always, meeting the puppy with their Mum. We were fortunate that our research led us to a lovely breeder for Brody, where we were able to meet both his parents. Even now we keep in contact with Brody’s breeder, to let her know how he is doing – and occasionally ask for the odd bit of advice if necessary. The point I’m making is that despite doing a lot of research, we still found having a new puppy very difficult – goodness only knows where we would have ended up if we hadn’t done any whatsoever.
4. DON’T EXPECT THE ANDREX PUPPY
When we brought Brody home at the age of eight weeks old, he was the epitome of everything that’s cute about a puppy. He was adorable. And yet, he was also a little terror. His baby teeth and nails were razor sharp and he liked to use them – relentlessly. He was only playing of course, but for the first seven months of his life he spent every day biting, nipping and scratching us. He pursued the kids around the garden, grabbing at their trouser legs and tearing clothes. He chased witches down the street at Halloween and made small people who visited us cry. He barked at night when we tried to get him to go to his own bed. For months his favourite hobby was pulling children’s socks from their feet and refusing to return them. When I ventured into the kitchen at 6am every morning I had to wear gardening clogs to stop him biting at my feet. Any kind of feminine attire – earrings, sandals, floaty tops – were banished to the darkest recesses of my wardrobe for fear of the frenzy they ignited. I remember once a family member coming to visit and finding me in tears because Brody had drawn blood after biting me on the finger. All very embarrassing now but at the time I was getting to the end of my tether (this was within the same time frame as the projectile vomiting bug mentioned in point 2.). With two small kids in the house it wasn’t always easy to get up and out as soon as Brody started getting hyperactive, and I vividly recall his daily ‘mad 5 minutes’ when he’d zoom around the kitchen, wall of death style, bouncing off everything like some sort of thing possessed.
In the end, although we took him to training classes, read every book known to man on the subject of dog behaviour, and listened to all sorts of (occasionally very misguided) advice from various ‘experts’, what Brody really needed was time. From the age of about 7 months, around the house at least, Brody began to settle down significantly, with noticeable improvements at the age of 1, 2 and every year thereafter (believe it or not these days he spends most of his life asleep). Outside the home, though, was a different matter, and Brody’s adolescence, which started almost as soon as all his baby teeth disappeared, involved an on/off period of selective hearing, an inability to respond to even the most basic of commands, and a habit of running off after other dogs at speeds of up to 40mph whenever he was let off his lead. The incidents occurring during this period are too time consuming/embarrassing to go through in a blog post (I might leave them for a book one day), but suffice to say my daily life with Brody was like a scene from Marley and Me – without any of the laughs. While this stage too did pass (well at least mostly), it’s worth bearing in mind that unless you’re blessed with the perfect puppy, you may have to invest a lot of time, patience and understanding before your canine companion becomes a well rounded and obedient friend.
5. BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR IDEAS
Before we got Brody, we had well defined ideas about how a dog would fit into our family. For instance, we had a crate all ready for him in the kitchen with the letters of his name lovingly adorned across the wall above. Fast forward 6 months and a few sleepless nights later, and Brody was sleeping in the marital bed, snoring loudly, and regularly stealing all the covers (yes, Brody sleeps under the covers. It turns out Hungarian Vizslas like to sleep, as they say in Hungary, ‘on top of their owners heads’ – or something like that). Similarly with the couch – when we first got Brody we planned a strict ‘no dogs on the furniture’ policy. Fast forward 3 weeks and Brody was sitting on every couch in the household, and regularly nudging people out of his favourite spots. Similarly with holidays and kennels – before we got Brody we assumed we would just pop him off to dog boarding every time we wanted to swan off somewhere. Fast forward no time at all and the list of people trusted to look after our precious baby could probably fit on the back of a large postage stamp. In fact, Brody comes almost everywhere with us, and on the very rare occasions where we have gone away without him we’ve ended up coming home early simply because we missed him so much.
Yes, the fact is, despite everything you’ve read here, we actually like having Brody around. Correction – we love it. He hasn’t been easy, but any parent who’s experienced childbirth, sleepless nights or the terrible twos will tell you that the things that mean the most in life often aren’t. Brody is the third child in our family, the fabric that binds us all together, and a little ginger coloured rainbow that brightens up the gloomiest of days. He may not be perfect, but to me, as to every loving dog owner, mine is quite simply the best dog in the world. He may sometimes bark at other dogs, the postman – or the odd garden ornament in a case of mistaken identity. He may jump up occasionally or get over excited when we have visitors. But do we ever regret getting him? Never. Would we in hindsight have chosen another breed, another dog, another puppy? Not on your Nelly. If you are in any doubt about my feelings for my dog, please read my poem, Secrets of a Dog Lover and be reassured. I just wanted to tell you my truth of owning a puppy, advise families out there thinking about getting one, and mostly help that unsuspecting puppy who might one day find themselves the subject of a call to a rehoming centre. If you’ve read this far you’ve already shown a significant level of commitment in your research towards getting a puppy. And if you do decide to bring a puppy into your family, then all that’s left for me to do is wish you all the joy, comfort and happiness that owning a dog can bring.