New Pet Parents: DOs and DON'Ts
Puppy Girl at Home
Ideally, don't wait until you're a senior citizen before you get your first dog
If anyone had told me before my sixty-first year that I would find myself longing for a dog, I would have laughed out loud. I never had a pet, even as a child, and never wished for one before that watershed year. As a potential pet parent, I wasn't the ideal candidate.
I was divorced, my children were adults leading their own lives, and I lived alone. I had a busy career. I often worked long hours and occasionally traveled. It wasn't the best situation in which to have a pet, even if I had wanted one . . . and I didn't.
That changed--at least, the busy career part--when a fall left me injured, in chronic pain, and with limited mobility at age 61. Prior to my accident, I had planned to work a year or two past the normal retirement age. I loved my work, and it played a major role in how I thought of myself. Suddenly, I couldn't work at all, was hurting a lot, and sinking into a quicksand-like depression. It was after I'd endured several months of misery that my yearning for a dog began.
I didn't have a sudden epiphany: I need a dog to keep me company! Instead, the idea began as a seed in my mind that gathered strength and validity as I entertained the possibility until it became an actual plan. I researched various dog breeds online, looking at their photos and reading about their traits. I use the term "researched" with tongue firmly placed in cheek.
I simply fell in love with pictures of miniature Schnauzers, and such phrases as "very smart" and "loyal to owner" jumped off the screen at me. I ignored warnings that mini Schnauzers are more like terriers than their larger relatives. Of course, since I wasn't "researching" terriers, I knew nothing about them at the time. It was later I read that terriers are likely to be incessant barkers, very lively dogs and not easy to train. I had already made my first mistake.
DO: Realize that breed or type behavior is one of the most important factors you should consider when choosing a dog breed. It pays to talk to people who know the breed--legitimate breeders (not pet shop owners or people who run "puppy farms"), veterinarians (who see many breeds daily), and owners of the breed in which you're interested. If you're considering a mixed breed, it helps if the person or shelter from which you're getting the pup can give you an idea what breeds make up the mix. Then you should find out what those breeds are like before you make your decision.
Some breeds are great with children; some make good family pets; others really need oodles of exercise or attention, and the pet parent must be able to provide it. Some dogs do well in small homes or apartments, while others need big fenced yards or places where they can be safely walked every day.The best bet for a senior citizen is a small dog that doesn't require much exercise and loves to sit on your lap . . . the ideal companion dog. Even older people who are very fit and active need to remember that a puppy chosen now may live 15 years or longer and, during that time, the older pet parents may face health issues or other factors that slow them down. Thinking ahead can help you keep your dog, rather than have to give it up because you can't care for it properly.
In hindsight, I understand my sudden impulsive need for a puppy was akin to "empty nest syndrome," only the emptiness I felt stemmed from giving up work that gave me satisfaction and self-identity. What I longed for was something that would give me a purpose to get out of bed every day and get moving.
Once I gave my heart to the miniature Schnauzer breed, the search for my own pup was on in earnest. Serendipity led me, via a newspaper ad, to a woman who raised a couple of litters of the breed per year as a hobby. When I called, she told me that all her dogs lived inside her house, and the adult dogs slept in her bed. I thought that must surely prove beyond doubt they were adorable animals. A fairly knowledgeable person about many things, I still knew very little about dogs (or dog breeders). My ignorance of the topic was exceeded only by my impatience to hurry up and get my own puppy.
All I knew for certain before I saw the two 7 1/2-week-old female pups Ms. Stuart had left were the gender (female) and color (salt and pepper) I wanted. I bent down to look at two puppies that looked similar, except one's facial coloring was a bit darker than the other's. I liked the way the pup with the lighter markings looked, and immediately chose her when she came over to me and nuzzled my hand. I picked her up and hugged her, knowing this was my new puppy. It didn't occur to me until much later that my marriages (which ended in divorce) were based on not-so-different selection methods than what drew me to this puppy.
Her name was chosen before I made her acquaintance. Since Schnauzers were originally bred in Germany, I looked through lists of Germanic female names on the Internet and narrowed them down to three. While driving to get the puppy, I chose my favorite plus one more. She would have (in true Southern tradition) both first and middle names. Her last name was--of course--my own.
In the grip of true puppy love, however, I began crooning endearments to my new baby as I placed her inside a basket in the car for our journey home. Sugar Puppy, Puppy Girl, Sweetie Pup, Mama's Girl . . . these were just a few that lingered and carried over past her puppyhood, with Puppy Girl being the nickname that stuck the most. (Who knew that Psycho Puppy would be added to the list when she reached adolescence?)
I wrapped her in the baby blanket I'd brought along and carried her into the pet supply store with me.
"I need to get some things for my new puppy," I told a sales clerk, whose eyes immediately reflected dollar signs as he loaded my shopping cart with several hundred bucks worth of necessities.
Next was a trip to the veterinarian (conveniently sharing a building with the pet supply store), who pronounced her healthy, and, just to make certain she stayed that way, sold me the chain animal hospital's puppy healthcare plan. I was learning fast that it might be as expensive to successfully care for a dog as to rear a human child. I've learned a great deal more since then. Therefore, let me warn you how to avoid my second big mistake.
DO: Invest in a good pet health insurance plan before your dog has a chance to get sick. I'm not referring to the well-known chain animal hospital's plan, which was touted as a discount plan to cut costs and it did, somewhat, when she was spayed and again, when she needed an operation. However, there are several nationally known pet insurance plans for which you pay premiums. They will be worthwhile if your pet sustains a serious injury or a major and costly illness. Many of these plans do not pay for routine care, nor do they pay any benefits for an illness which is considered "pre-existing," so the time to enroll is before you dog gets ill. Also, do a lot of research on pet insurance plans and look for reviews before you select one.
For example, my dog was very sick with pancreatitis twice. Her vet says that Schnauzers are prone to get it because their lipid levels tend to be higher than those of other breeds. Because she had it before being enrolled in the first pet care plan I chose, that plan would have paid zilch for re-occurrences. Unfortunately, pet healthcare insurance was not included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)--in spite of the fact that pets are members of the family!
Update: I changed pet insurance plans when I found one with wellness benefits, but also did not count her bouts with pancreatitis as a pre-existing condition. It was VPI Pet Insurance, and I considered the premiums as important as those I paid for my own coverage--that is, until she was diagnosed with KCS (extreme dry eye) in 2012 and I learned what the VPI rep didn't tell me or have available in the printed policy: common ailments have an annual payment cap that's so small the benefits don't even cover one trip to the vet clinic! I dropped VPI and decided to forego pet insurance altogether. At that point, my dog had so many pre-existing conditions (they considered any type of allergic reaction a "reoccurrence" of any other allergy) that the plan was useless.
My advice is to skip the animal hospital's discount plan (in fact, I would urge you to skip the chain hospital altogether, which is owned by a corporation, and the corporate byword is "greed"). They make a lot of profit from vaccinations, and if you don't know your state's requirements for rabies vaccinations (which may be every three years instead of yearly), they may "forget" to tell you. That was my experience, and Puppy Girl suffered for it with a bad reaction to the unnecessary injection given her when she was two years old.That reaction changed her life by compromising her immune system and, therefore, her health.
After that, I looked for and found a good independent animal clinic with caring vets and technicians who were focused on my pet's health and wellbeing. They gave her excellent care, and I had confidence in everyone there who took care of her. All Creatures Animal Care Clinic (don't you love the name?) also has someone on call for emergencies at all times, which the chain clinic does not have. Her primary care vet used titers to check her blood for immunity and save her from taking vaccine boosters that were not needed.
I brought my Puppy Girl home with the blissful ignorance born of a former no-pets life, and thought of her as my baby girl. My naïve belief was that all I had to do was feed and water her, keep her safe, and love her. Voila! She would grow up to be a wonderful little dog who would love me as much as I loved her. No problems expected. Did I mention I was pet-naive?
When I phoned my family and friends to announce that I had a new four-legged roommate, the disbelief was palpable.
"You're kidding, right?" said one son. "You don't even like dogs."
"I do now," was my reply, and my silly, adoring behavior with my new puppy soon astounded everyone who saw me with her. In a way, becoming Big Mama (as opposed to her little "dog" mama) to my Puppy Girl helped me relate to animals in a way that reading about them or seeing them without the emotional context of pet ownership had never been able to do. Over time, as my little Schnauzer girl completely stole my heart, I've evolved into a person of whom I'm proud. The pre-pet Jaye would not have thought about signing petitions against cruelty to animals or donating to pet shelters. Now, these issues are important to me.
First on the agenda with my new puppy was house-training. Thanks to the breeder, who told me her mama dog's puppies practically house-trained themselves--all I had to do was take her outdoors every 30 minutes until she got the idea--that task was successful. I actually took her on leash to the backyard "potty place" I wanted her to use, and I did it nearly every half-hour, day and night, for several weeks. She had very few accidents, but I grew to regret that I didn't first train her to "go" on paper or puppy pads, and then train her outdoors. She had a dislike for rain or even walking in wet grass from puppyhood, and that disdain has never left her.
We live in an area where it sometimes rains daily for a week or more, and there are frequent thunderstorms in the spring and fall. Puppy Girl's distaste for going potty in the rain, even when I held a big open umbrella over us) or its aftermath--wet grass--frequently made me wish that I could have a "do-over" with respect to paper-training. Contrary to what those ads for puppy litter boxes and "guaranteed" training results with older dogs declare, Puppy Girl knew before she was three months old that "potty" meant outdoors . Indoors was taboo for that purpose. Did I tell you she was born with a mind of her own?
In retrospect, I can see that Puppy Girl was a naturally good puppy. She crunched on her puppy kibble and treats. She chewed on her chew toys, especially when she was teething. What she didn't do was chew on slippers, the furniture, or other out-of-bounds objects, except for one stray dryer sheet that floated down to the floor. She tried to eat it, and I had to wrest it out of her mouth before she could choke. (That's another story.) She was not an indiscriminate "chewer", like some dogs that will chew up your most cherished possessions, but I didn't realize then how lucky I was since I had no reference.
Nor did I realize how foolish it was of me not to enroll her in obedience class--puppy kindergarten--when she was young. Remember what I thought at the beginning of all this? I only had to feed and water her . . . love her . . . she would grow up to be a wonderful dog and love me . . . So, no early dog training. Another big mistake.
DON'T: You may think that buying and reading a book or two about training dogs will make you an expert and save you the cost of obedience class. If you, unlike me, get across that key first lesson to your puppy--" I'm the pack leader and in charge; you're the follower"--it may work, especially if you're consistent in reinforcing good behavior and not inadvertently reinforcing undesired behavior.
In my case, the puppy learned very quickly that I was not displaying pack leader skills, so she promoted herself to that role. I never managed to completely change her mind. While it's true that older dogs can be retrained, which is great because so many shelter dogs aren't puppies when they're adopted, the older dog who lives with a pet parent who never established herself/himself as the pack leader will be a tough sell on later-in-life training. Trust me, and get thyself and puppy to an obedience class early in your relationship. My recommendation is to find a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement and kindness, and doesn't lean heavily toward the dominance theory of training.
While I was certain Puppy Girl was a wonderful, loving puppy (even though she was definitely independent), I passed up that all-important opportunity for puppy kindergarten when she was at the ideal age to learn good manners. I was home with her nearly all the time, and whenever I left her for a short time, she demonstrated a textbook example of separation anxiety. I, of course, sas her enabler. She was never been destructive when left alone for a few hours, but I heard that high-pitched Thank goodness Mama's home bark as soon as I opened the car door. Nearly beside herself with joy when I unlocked the front door--of course I let her jump up on me in welcome. (Are you counting my mistakes?)
When Puppy Girl was nine months old, she used her crate for an occasional nap with the door open, and its door was only fastened when I left her alone and unsupervised. Within six more months, I put away her crate for good and allowed her full run of the house. By that time, she'd outgrown her soft-sided sleeping "condo" and learned to jump up on my bed. You guessed it. I let her stay. She slept with me from then on, usually staying on her own side of the bed with her head lying on her own pillow. When I turned out the lamp after reading a while and turned over on my side, facing away from the bed, Puppy Girl immediately turned over in the opposite direction to back up against my back. Sometimes (much like a toddler) she might turn sideways in the bed before morning. If I decided to sleep in, she was content to catch a few more winks, too.
Some trainers write that you should never let a pet sleep on your bed. Others differ in opinion and let their own dogs sleep with them. Therefore, I don't consider letting her into my bed a mistake, although the trainers who insist you shouldn't allow it say it detracts from the dog accepting you as pack leader. Okay . . . we already know I forfeited that job when she was just a puppy.
Puppy Girl assumed her role as Guard Dog when she was little more than a pup and took it very, very seriously. The same mail carrier brought bills, magazines, and packages to the house six days a week for years, but she barked maniacally every day as soon as he neared the vicinity and didn't stop until he left our front yard. Every time. All other delivery or repair people got the same treatment. She barked at kids walking down the street, at squirrels running across the top of our fence and, especially, at cats with the temerity to get close to our yard. One of my neighbor's felines apparently taunted Puppy Girl by jumping our fence and strolling around the lawn while Puppy Girl barked hysterically. Once the cat left, Puppy Girl needed a nap on the sofa to recover from cat trauma.
She barked just as frantically, though in a different tone of bark, at the visit of family or friends. When a familiar vehicle pulled into the driveway, her high-pitched welcome started, as she bounced up and down in the foyer, impatient for the front door to open so her guests could come inside and be welcomed.
Miniature Schnauzers have so many different sounds, they are often said to "talk", and I discovered the truth to that description. I could tell whether friend or foe approached by the type of bark, even if it was the same intensity. Her little "grumble, grumble, mutter, mutter, mutter" sound let me know she wasn't happy about something, but not really upset. After she stopped barking at a repairman who stooped down to let her sniff his hand, she snorted a few times just to show him that she was still on guard duty.
A short, loud bark before turning to run for the back door let me know it was time for a potty break. A harsh bark or two while standing by my side in the evening was her "Bedtime, Mama " reminder, and I rarely had to look at the clock to know it was around 8:15 p.m. Sometimes I'd continue what I was doing for a while, and she settled onto a big floor pillow or sofa to nap. Other times, I'd turn down the bed covers to let her get comfy on her side of the bed while I stretched out and read a book until I, too, was sleepy.
My favorite Puppy Girl sound? Almost a long sigh reserved for those blissed-out moments from a a lengthy tummy tickle or massage of her back and ears. Her morning wakeup routine: roll over on her back, lift her front legs and paws like human arms and wait for her tummy tickle. If I was too slow, or tried to stop too soon, she actually used her front paws to grab my hand. Spoiled? I don't think so. Who can blame a little dog for loving her tummy tickles and back massages? That's little enough to ask of me in return for so much unconditional love and loyalty.
I felt guilty about all her barking after she was a couple of years old and hired a dog behavioral expert for private consultation and training. She came to the house to teach my girl some new behaviors to replace not-so-admired ones, such as barking loudly when the doorbell rang. Using a pocket full of tasty treats, the expert put Puppy Girl through her paces. I was astounded at how quickly my little girl responded to the lessons. This expert told me, "Miniature Schnauzers are generally pretty smart, but I've never trained a dog that caught on as fast as this one does." I was such a proud pet parent!
I practiced with Puppy Girl while the expert was here, and she still behaved beautifully. Guess what happened when the lady dog whisperer left? You guessed it! No amount of reinforcement helped. She had impressed the lady who gave her treats for quickly learning new tricks. No need to impress Mama, who would feed her anyway.
When my Schnauzer girl was still partly in the adolescent stage, but becoming an adult, my elderly mother came to live with us for the last three years of her life. Talk about two great new friends! Mom insisted that Puppy Girl was smiling at her, and my friendly furball adored her Grandma. Every morning until Mom became frail, she was awakened with puppy kisses tickling her neck, and the giggles that came from her bedroom gladdened my heart. Mom reveled in sneaking her little friend pieces of people food under the table. I made sure she didn't give her anything harmful, but otherwise let it continue because it made them both happy. When my mother's final illness took away her ability to walk, I could no longer allow Puppy Girl to jump up on her bed or into her lap as Mom sat in her wheelchair. Even so, the love between the two friends was still evident. Mom liked to pet her gently on top of her head between her ears, and Puppy Girl sat there patiently enjoying the petting and her time with Grandma. When Mom passed away, Puppy Girl walked through the house repeatedly looking for Grandma, and she lay her head in my lap as I grieved.
DON'T: If you're a senior citizen and in relatively good health, you shouldn't deny yourself the joy of having a dog to live with you. A dog is not only a good pet for the young, but can be better than medicine for the elderly. When I began edging into my own "golden" years, the little dog sharing my home and life was a wonderful companion. She cheered me up when I was feeling a bit down, often by bringing me a toy and play-bowing as a hint. She overlooked my faults and never cared about my appearance. As we grew older together, we both slowed down a bit, and I tried not to think ahead too far into the future. Losing a beloved pet is, as far as I'm concerned, the only downside to giving your heart to a dog. In the interim, I tried to live in the "now" the way dogs do and not stress over what might happen.
I would not have missed the joy she gave me for anything, even if I could have foreseen heartache before bringing her into my life. My Puppy Girl brought me more happiness than I could have possibly imagined when I was first beset by that longing for a puppy. As Puppy Girl grew older and more health issues cropped up, my wish for her was the same as what I wish for myself: to live as long as overall health is relatively good, cognitive ability lasts and life is enjoyable.
Not knowing any better when my best friend was still a puppy, I fed her the store-bought brand of dog food suggested by her first vet (the one in the chain animal hospital affliated with the pet store that sold the food). Then I learned more about the quality of various dog foods and bought only what I considered the finest quality. No byproducts, no cheap ingredients as fillers--only the best for Mama's girl. I also steered clear of corn and wheat due to allergies. My personal aversion to the inhumane factory farming of meat animals meant there was no way I would ever contribute to the profits of big agribusinesses, so organic protein and other wholesome ingredients were my choice.
Update: After finding an online alert about a tainted batch of the commercial dog food I thought was safe, I switched to making her meals at home. I discovered it ws not difficult, and when you cook it yourself, you know exactly what your dog's food contains. On the advice of Puppy Girl's vet, I supplemented the home-cooked food's nutrients with a canine multivitamin/mineral chewable, as well as powdered enzymes and probiotics. You can find a link to my hub about how to prepare healthy, safe dog food in your own kitchen at the end of this hub.
With her vet's blessing, other treats included blueberries, peeled/cored/deseeded/chopped apple, and--her personal favorite--half of my banana. Even as a pup, she could tell from the other end of the house when I reached into the fruit bowl and picked up a banana. By the time I started to peel it, a fluffy puppy was sitting at my feet, waiting for me to pinch off a few bits for her to eat from my hand.
Schnauzers like to eat, and she would make herself sick if allowed to eat on demand. I put half of her daily food portion in her bowl mid-morning and the other half about 4:30 p.m. No coaxing to eat is ever necessary for a schnauzer. Also required: clean, fresh water in the water bowl all the time, but not even a taste of high-fat "people food" due to her medical history, and I maintained vigilance to protect her from getting any foods or other substances that are toxic to dogs.
DON'T: Never give your dog chicken bones that are prone to splinter and could puncture her intestine, any of the foods known to be toxic to dogs (chocolate, grapes or raisins, onions, macadamia nuts, walnuts, avocados, garlic), greasy table scraps or junk food. I encourage everyone to consider making your dog's food at home, with guidance from your veterinarian relative to ingredients and ratios of each, as well as portion control. Feeding a controlled diet of healthy homemade food to your dog can keep his or her weight constant and avoid obesity. A low-fat diet for dogs prone to lipidemia will keep cholesterol levels (which should be checked regularly) in the safe zone, and a shiny coat is just a bonus.
Other toxic items that your dog may think are food, such as antifreeze, rat poison,alcohol, acetone (and others that you can find listed online or in books about proper care of dogs) should never be left where she can come in contact with them. I've read that antifreeze has a sweet taste that attracts pets, and a very small amount will kill a dog. If you have toxic chemicals at your house that could poison your dog, keep them locked away in a storage room or shed, preferably on a high shelf.
The same goes for any medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter. Many tablets have a sugar base, and dogs love sugar even though it's bad for them (just as people do). Be extra careful when you shake a pill into your hand so that nothing else falls from the bottle onto the floor where your dog can find and eat it. One stray acetaminophen tablet eaten by a dog could cause kidney failure. I learned early on to open medication bottles over a wide counter to ensure no capsule or pill hit the floor, and always took my meds before getting sleepy (safer for both Puppy Girl and me). As for that sweet taste, if you have a dog in your home, it's safer not to ever buy any item that contains the artificial sweetener, xylitol, which is extremely toxic to dogs and can prove fatal.
You should also become familiar with the hundreds of plants that are poisonous to dogs, and either keep them out of your home and yard, or make certain your fur friend can't get to them for a chance nibble. Your dog's health is your responsibility, and it's up to you to keep her or him safe from harm. Your dog trusts you, so don't ever betray that trust by being careless.
Since one of the joys of loving a dog (for me, anyway) is dressing her up, Puppy Girl's wardrobe was (from the first) better wardrobe than mine, including Halloween costumes, a Santa hat for Christmas, tee shirts with printed messages, even a pretty dress and a polka-dot bikini. (It's a tough goal to make a female dog look "girly" when said dog has a natural beard!) I also bought a raincoat and boots because stormy weather sets in for days i our area. We don't have long harsh winters in the deep South, but it gets cold enough for a sweater in January and February. A plush topcoat is warm outdoors when wintry winds blow, and every little dog should be able to snuggle indoors in her PJs (that cover all four legs and her body while leaving an opening in case she has to go potty).
In summer, the look is best au naturel, with a short schnauzer cut or even shorter and the beard trimmed and easier to keep clean. A baby wipe after each meal can ensure there are no bits of food left in a dog's whiskers, followed by a quick brush. Tooth-brushing should also be included in a dog's daily routine. This is important for dental and general health; otherwise, expensive cleaning and scaling by a vet while anethesized might become necessary to prevent tartar buildup and gum disease.
I waited till rather late in life to learn the joys of loving and being loved by a pet. Still, it's "better late than never", as the old saw goes. Sure, I made mistakes because I didn't know any better. Some I corrected, but just learned to live with others. One thing is for certain: Puppy Girl brought more joy into my life than I expected from that little bundle of fur I brought home in early 2005, and I'm confident I kept my part of the deal.
DO: Whatever your dog's level or training and manners, enjoy the pet that blesses your life. Your family and friends will love you, but your idiosyncrasies or facets of your personality may sometimes annoy them. There may be some topics you avoid in their presence because of potential disagreement. Your dog, however, doesn't care about your personality, if you've gained a few pounds, how you vote, or what your opinions are. As long as you are kind to her or him and provide the necessities (and whatever "extras" you can afford), you can count on receiving unceasing unconditional love from your pooch. Who else will give you "kisses" when you're moody? If you're already a dog's human, count your blessings. If you're thinking about becoming a pet parent, please learn everything you can to help you be the best one possible.
One more suggestion, and this is something I learned after choosing my own pet. Check out adoptable dogs at a local pet shelter before you look anywhere else for a furry companion. By adopting a dog, you may bypass the cute puppy stage, but that can be an advantage. You may get a dog that's already house-trained and past the adolescent stage. Giving a homeless dog a "forever home" and lots of love will earn you plenty of gratitude from your new pet and give you the satisfaction of knowing you saved that dog's life.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventures as a pet parent on the "learn-as-you-go" plan. I've written other hubs about my Puppy Girl that you can may enjoy and can find on my Profile page.
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