Getting a Dog: Information and Advice for New Owners
Dogs have been a huge part of my life for many years and continue to be so in retirement.
As children my brother and I would draw pictures of dogs and leave them all over the house in a concerted effort to convince the parents we should get one.
We won in the end, but only the summer I left home to go to University!
In adult life I have had dogs for about the last 30 years. I could never imagine life without one.
If, like me, you’ve always had dogs, then you’ll welcome the opportunity that retirement offers for ever more time for long walks, and whenever you like (not fitted in before or after work).
But maybe you haven’t had a dog before and feel that retirement is the ideal time. It is quite a big step, so in this article, there is lots of advice on things to think about.
What Makes Dogs so Special?
Dogs are the most wonderful companions – they love you whatever. People often talk about the way they give “unconditional love”. They bring sheer joy, but equally, provide great comfort if you’re not well or feeling down. There is nothing like that welcome as you come in through the front door. You might only have been gone for half an hour, but your dog still thinks that warrants a no holds barred welcome. The ever wagging tail that just exudes happiness. Depending on the breed, you may also be brought a treasured possession by way of greeting. So what if it is one of your best shoes, or a pair of socks taken off the clothes airer?!
For me, as a very active walker, having a dog to take out is just utter joy. Whatever the weather we still go out: we just dress accordingly. So many simple pleasures: playing hide and seek with your dog on the park; watching as your dog searches for the treat you’ve just thrown into the layer of crisp autumn leaves; chatting with other dog walkers, and bristling with pride when someone tells you what a handsome dog you have, or what a well-trained dog. As for the all too rare occasions when we wake up and the ground is covered in fresh snow, transforming the landscape, and rendering a whole new playground for you and your dog. And then of course back home after a good walk, there is nothing more lovely than seeing your dog curled up, gently snoring, at peace with the world.
A Tie or a Commitment?
There are people who often say “I’d love to have a dog but it's just such a tie. I want to be able to go out and go on holiday.” I would never refer to my dog as a tie, but it is a commitment, and a responsibility, and a significant one. Those who say what a nuisance it must be to have to take a dog for a walk every day are really missing the point. Most people who have dogs have them because they want to go for a walk every day. There is no reason why you can’t still go out when you have a dog, or go on holiday. It just takes thought and, in the case of holidays, some advance planning. We come back to these issues later in the article.
The decision to take on a dog should never be taken lightly. Get it right and you will never regret it, get it wrong and it can mean problems for you and the dog.
Before Getting a Dog for the First Time
Before you get down to the detailed discussions about what sort of dog you might like, what size, what age, how much exercise they might need, etc, you really need to seriously consider what your lifestyle in retirement is going to be like:
- What sort of social life do you have? Outdoor where you are likely to take your dog? Or mainly indoor where you may not be able to take your dog.
- What about holidays? Do you usually holiday in this country? Or do you usually go abroad? How long are your holidays? What sort of things do you like to do on holiday? Would you want to take your dog with you? You can get passports for dogs. But would the holiday be suitable for a dog?
- Are you likely to be on grandparent duty? If so, what ages are the visiting children? Do they like dogs?
- Does anybody in the family have allergies to dogs? It doesn’t rule out getting one but could impact what breed you go for.
- How houseproud are you? Dogs can come in with muddy paws, leave toys all over the place, shed hairs, scratch paintwork etc.
- How fit and active are you? Some dogs want lots of exercise and can easily get bored without it, others (such as greyhounds) are real couch potatoes, content with a couple of short walks a day, and lots of time spent lounging around.
- How much energy do you have? Could you take on a puppy, which can be really hard work (toilet training, teething, lead walking, and other aspects of training)?
- Where do you live? What size garden do you have? Is it secure? Are there good dog walks near where you live?
- Do you live alone or with a spouse or partner? Dogs can be wonderful companions for those on their own but it does mean all the responsibility falls on you.
- What sort of backup provision do you have if you want to go out for the day and can’t take your dog, or if you are ill and unable to walk it?
- Finally, have you thought about the cost? From initial purchase price, to dog food, leads/collars/dog beds, vets bills, insurance etc – it can add up.
So, now you’ve decided you definitely do want a dog, what next? There is a lot to think about:
- What sort of dog do you want? A pedigree, or a crossbreed?
- What age? A puppy, or an older dog?
- What breed?
- What size?
- What colour?
- Would you consider a dog from a rescue centre?
If you decide you want a puppy, then you will presumably opt to buy a pedigree dog. If that is the case, you need to ensure you buy from a reputable breeder. A pedigree puppy should come with registration papers, and it is really important to visit the home of the puppy. Particularly since lockdown the price of pedigree dogs, or what are sometimes referred to as “designer crossbreeds” (such as a cockapoo), has increased massively. You may well find yourself paying well over £1,000.
Puppies are, of course, completely adorable. They can also be incredibly hard work. They may cry at night if left alone, they need toilet training, they need basic obedience training, training in lead walking, recalls, etc. They also need socialising with other dogs. The reason many people take on a puppy is that there will be no inbuilt bad habits, no ‘baggage’ from previous owners or experiences. If you survive puppyhood and the result is a well-trained dog, then you can take all the credit.
If you don’t fancy a puppy and want an older dog that is probably going to be pretty well trained, then think about age. Certain breeds generally live longer than others. Smaller dogs, such as terriers, can easily live to 15 or even more. Large heavy dogs are not likely to live as long, and may well have more health problems.
When it comes to choice of breed, then the world is literally your oyster. Again, it helps to think of size, temperament, character, ease of training for a start. If you go for a long-haired dog it will take much more daily grooming, and may also require visits to a dog groomer several times a year. A working breed, such as a collie, or spaniel, will need lots of exercise.
Adopting a Dog From a Rescue Centre
If you are considering a dog from a rescue centre, there are a lot of centres to choose from. The Dogs Trust is an obvious example, with a number of branches around the country, but there are also smaller independent centres, as well as specialist rescue centres for particular breeds. My advice when visiting a rescue centre is to go with a completely open mind. You will know if you want a large, medium or small dog. That will help to cut down the choice, which can be overwhelming. Some dogs are not suitable for rehoming in a house where there are children, or where there are cats for example – be guided on this. If you are looking for a dog to accompany you on long walks, don’t opt for a much older dog that just wants a quiet home to live out its remaining years. If you do visit a rescue centre and see a dog you might be interested in, don’t be upset if it doesn’t take much notice of you at first meeting. It may have met lots of potential new owners – just give it time. I always maintain that rescue dogs choose their owners, not the other way round!
Whereas if you decide to buy a pedigree dog, there may not be many questions from the seller to ascertain if you will be a suitable owner, that is not the case when you take on a dog from a rescue centre. The centre will ask lots of questions: how much time the dog will be left alone; what sort of house and garden you have; is the garden secure; any other pets; children, etc etc. Equally you should ask all the questions you want so that you can find out as much about the dog as possible. Sometimes they may not know the answers. That was the case with our last dog, Spike, who was picked up on the street, and only stayed a couple of weeks in the centre before we came along. You may be asked to go to the centre to meet your chosen dog over a period of several weeks before you take it home. Once you do take it home, it is really important that you follow any advice you have been given, such as allowing the dog time to settle in quietly before inviting everyone in the family to come and meet it. If you do have problems, though, there will always be someone at the centre you can contact for advice – that can feel like a lifeline, particularly in the early days.
- Really important, think about what rules you might like to enforce? Will the dog be allowed on the furniture; will it be allowed upstairs; where will it sleep? (Most people start off with a firm list of rules and they tend to bend them. Think about what rules really matter and ensure that everyone in the household follows them consistently. I decided when we got our current dog, Patch, that I didn’t mind if he wanted to curl up in an armchair, or lie on the bed. For me, the one rule I was determined to follow with Patch is that he is never fed from the table. It works. He just curls up under the table when we eat, and never asks for food. It means we can take him to a pub and know that he is not going to be a nuisance to other diners.
- If you’ve taken on a puppy, there are lots of good books that you can get that advice on toilet training, basic obedience, etc. Once a new puppy has had its vaccinations and can go out and meet other dogs, then socialization is really important. There are puppy training classes that focus on that, as well as basic training. The key to any successful training regime is not to ask too much of your dog at any one time, be consistent, and give positive praise (which may well be treats) when it gets things right. They can be very quick to learn.
- If you have taken on an older dog, which may well come ready trained, so walks beautifully to heel for example, or asks at the door when a toilet visit is necessary, life is potentially much easier. But you still need to follow the basic rules of training – learning to come back when called is not only nice but can be a lifesaver. Again, don’t try too much too soon. If you’re not sure if your dog will come back, keep it on a long line on the park initially, and always offer praise when it does come back. That is a much better approach than letting your dog run free and find it goes completely deaf on you when you call it. Bad habits can become ingrained just as quickly as good ones.
- Leaving your dog when you want to go out is really important. Of course, there will be all the trips to the park, or the seaside when your dog will go with you. But if you want to go and do the shopping, go out for a meal, go to the cinema, then its important that you are able to leave your dog, knowing that it is fine at home alone. This can take a bit of determination on your part, and is likely to vary according to breed. Some dogs suffer more from separation anxiety than others. Your dog may well cry when it is first left. Just pop out of the room, and then go back. Over weeks and maybe even months, build up very slowly the length of time you leave your dog. Don’t be like a friend of mine who has never really left her dog “because she’ll miss us and be sad”, so now either has to take her dog with her everywhere, or finds herself having to sort a dog sitter for the shortest of outings. It really is important that your dog fits into your lifestyle, rather than the other way round. Dogs quickly settle into a routine and, however much we love our dog, downtime is as important for them as it is for us.
What About Holidays?
In normal pre-Covid times I would have three holidays a year, and up to 2 weeks at a time. Having a dog has never stopped me doing that. There are options. One is that you may have family who would love to look after your dog while you’re away. There are dog sitters who will literally move into your house while you’re on holiday so the dog remains in its own home. Or there are boarding kennels.
I personally prefer boarding kennels. One of my dogs, Fozzie, stayed with my mum while I was away. I had no idea he was ill, but he had to have emergency surgery and died on the operating table the day we returned from holiday. It was devastating for everyone but particularly difficult for my mum who not only had to break the news to me, but also felt incredibly guilty about what had happened.
There are a lot of boarding kennels out there. If you are considering using one, it is really important that you visit and have a good look round, as well as talking to the staff. You will quickly get a feel for the place. With a new dog I would always arrange a day visit initially, then a one-night stay, then maybe a weekend, all before a longer trip. We often worry that our dogs will be lonely/sad/uncomfortable/unable to sleep etc. For them, with lots of canine chums, it may all just seem a great adventure. After all, dogs are pack animals. Of course, your dog will be thrilled to see you when you get back – that doesn’t mean it's been unhappy while you’ve been away.
A dog is a responsibility and it is important to have a plan for what would happen to the dog if you were unable to look after it, or walk it, or in the event of your death. The rescue centre Patch came from operates something called a Pet SOS Scheme. For a very nominal sum, the dog is registered with the centre. Basically, they undertake to take him in and rehome him if the need arose. I have a card that states that and my executors are aware. Nobody likes to think of their dog having to be rehomed, but they can learn to be happy again. (See Patch’s Story at the end of this article).
Alternatives to Buying a Dog of Your Own
Some people, having weighed up all the pros and cons of taking on a dog in retirement, may decide that it wouldn’t be right for them. If that is the case there are alternatives, which would still offer that ‘doggy fix’.
- You may have a friend, family member, or neighbour who would love to be able to leave their dog with you from time to time, or to have their dog taken out for a walk.
- Animal rescue centres always need volunteers to do a multitude of things, including dog walking.
- Some animal rescue centres have a fostering scheme where older dogs, or perhaps those with special medical needs, who struggle with the kennel environment, are fostered with suitable people. This could be a short-term arrangement that might suit, as long as you were able to part with the dog at the appropriate time. It is likely that some of the expenses of caring for the dog may be covered by the centre.
Losing a Dog
A dog very quickly becomes a much-loved member of the family, and the loss of your dog, whatever its age, is utterly heartbreaking. Beware the well-meaning friend, who says “oh well it was just a dog, and you can always get another”. And, yes you can get another, and you may decide to, but not before grieving for the dog you’ve lost.
Monty Don was on TV recently and talking about the death of his much-loved Retriever, Nigel, who many of us came to know and love as we watched Gardener’s World. He rightly talked about the fact that the loss of a dog is a real bereavement and you should take time to grieve. As he pointed out, dogs don’t live as long as we do, so if you take a dog on, chances are you will have to cope with the loss of that dog at some point. You should accept that losing them is, as he put it, “part of the deal”. He also talked about whether to take on another. Some people never do, some will do so very quickly and others may take longer. You can never replace the dog you lost but you can grow to love another. Monty very nicely describes it as one dog “passing the baton to another”.
I’ve always been lucky when I’ve lost a dog in that I have friends (some doggy some not) who know how much my dog meant to me and are happy to let me talk endlessly about my dog. A wonderful mantra I once heard was that you can be miserable and bemoan the loss of your dog, but that won’t bring it back, or you can give a loving home to another dog that desperately needs it. Basically don’t be selfish!
I always say that however heartbreaking the loss of your much-loved pet is, and perhaps a difficult period before its death, and it is truly painful, it is a tribute to how much that dog meant to me, and how much joy it gave me that I want to take on another.
A Final Thought
There really is no set age at which you shouldn’t take on a dog. We all know that age is just a number (or maybe a bit more than that) but it all depends on how active you are, and what your circumstances are. My partner’s mother had dogs all her life but, at the age of 80, decided she was too old to have another. She lived to be just over 100 and was still happily pounding the pavements until just a few months before she died. She could have had at least a couple more!
Patch, our current dog, is a Cocker Spaniel, or possibly a Sprocker (Cocker/Springer cross). He was four when we got him, three years ago now. Our last three dogs were all terriers, of one sort or another – feisty, full of character, and not the easiest of dogs to train, but we loved them all, and we loved the challenge. So when we lost Spike, we were looking for another terrier, medium-sized, and probably aged about two. We were very clear we wanted a dog from a rescue centre, and in fact, narrowed our choice to the centre where Spike and Fozzie before him had come from.
We had seen Patch’s photo on the website before we embarked on a 3-week holiday. He looked gorgeous, but he was reserved and waiting to go to a home. The holiday was a disaster, we came home early, and first stop was the rescue centre. Although Patch was reserved, and due to go to his new home that day, we agreed that he was the right size, we were happy with his age, and we were very happy to consider a spaniel. And we were happy to wait for the right dog to come along. Two days later, we got a message to say that Patch had gone to his new home, it hadn’t worked out and he had been returned, and did we want to see him? We couldn’t get there quickly enough!
When you take on a dog from a rescue centre, they will always tell you everything they know about the dog, but there is always a slight element of the unknown and you do have to be prepared for the possibility of some ‘baggage’. Patch had belonged to an old man who had him as a companion. (The old man may of course have been no older than we are!) When the man went into hospital and subsequently died, no one in the family could take Patch. So he found his way to a rescue centre. He was so traumatized, he sat in a crate for a week, never came out, and ate nothing,. He just shut down. Gradually with a huge amount of TLC and gentle encouragement, he began to emerge, but still very nervous and very lacking in confidence. Going to a new home and then being returned after just a day clearly didn’t help – yet another trauma for him to cope with.
Before we met him, we were warned that he probably wouldn’t interact with us – how was he to know we were potentially going to be the best thing that had happened to him? We were also advised that, if we did want him, we should allow about 3 weeks to keep going and visiting to give him time to get to know us. Well, for us it was love at first sight. A stunning looking dog, who happily took sausages from us on that first meeting. We knew instantly that he was the dog for us. We did go down a few times before we brought him home, but it only took about 10 days before the centre was happy to let him come home with us.
Taking on a nervous dog was a real change after three very full-on terriers. We had to hand feed him initially to get him to eat; we took our time gradually introducing him to friends and neighbours and, only when he approached them, did we let people stroke him. He bonded much more quickly with me than with my partner. That isn’t unusual – men can sometimes appear more of a threat, though usually for no particular reason. To get him used to the vet, we would walk there once a week, and just sit in the waiting room, giving him chance to get used to the place, the smells, the people, and the various rooms. We did the same at boarding kennels – he went for just an hour, then a couple of hours, gradually building up to an overnight stay, then a week. The biggest challenge was getting him used to being left. Unlike our independent terriers, Patch just wanted to be with us. Again it took time, starting with just going out of the room for a minute, then very gradually building up the length of time. He can now be happily left for several hours. There is usually a big indentation in the bed so we know where and how he has spent his time. He is always up at the window when we come home – how do they know? And always has a pile of presents to greet us with. And a tail that never stops wagging!
He is such a joy to walk, has gained so much confidence, has learnt to play with other dogs, to love water, and is a massive source of fun. It took time and a lot of patience but he is now a totally different dog from the rather sad one that we took on. I’m always thrilled when people see him out and about and say what a lovely happy dog he is. So the moral is that dogs can learn to love again, and be happy in a new home, just as we can learn to love a new dog.
Author - Sue Ablett
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