I wasn’t ready when I got my dog, Penny, in college. Lots of people compare owning a dog to raising a child, but I’ve never had a child, so I’ll compare it to looking after a Pokémon, of which I have owned many. True, canines are loyal companions who will come to your aid whenever you may need them. Except in this case, you can’t turn them off for a decade, then find them in the attic, jump right back into action, and beat the Elite Four one more time. Owning a dog takes actual, daily commitment.
I was probably stupid to get Penny in the first place, actually: I only wanted a pup to snuggle by my side, binge Netflix with me, and help me find self-worth. But Penny’s a good dog. She’s sweet, playful, and filled with life. And thanks to our growing up together, I do think I have become a competent—some would even say good!—dog owner.
Here’s the secret: There’s no such thing as a shitty dog. You show me a shitty dog, and I’ll show you a much shittier person who doesn’t give a fuck about the dog. And as someone who has transformed from “shithead student with a dog” into “shithead adult with a dog,” I feel like it’s on me to share some insight with others who may be thinking of getting their first pooch.
The first thing you should know is that all dog owners will unknowingly be shitty sometimes. Unfortunately, that just comes with the territory. There will come a point when you’ve had too much to drink, but are too cheap to take a cab or Uber, so you walk home; you know your dog has to pee, but that can wait 30 minutes while you save a few bucks. Meanwhile, your new best friend is engorging itself with that fancy new self-filling water bowl, and its fickle, chickpea-sized bladder is getting fuller and fuller. But it’s okay: The dog will just piss on your new comforter and teach you not to forget it next time.
But if you’ve any inkling that that sort of thing will happen often, let’s start with perhaps my most important piece of advice: MAYBE JUST DON’T GET A DOG! If you aren’t sure you can be a good dog owner, just wait until a time in your life when you can be sure. We aren’t gonna run out of dogs anytime soon. With that in mind, here are a few simple questions you can ask yourself.
How much space do I have? There are few things sadder than a dog that doesn’t get enough room to roam, and instead is stuck sitting by a window watching the world go by. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that not having a yard—or living in a studio apartment the size of a cupboard—disqualifies you from owning a dog. Your space also includes the neighborhood around you. Is there a dog park nearby? If so, great: That will allow you to socialize and exercise your dog regularly. You’re good as long as there is some kind of nearby area where you can let your pup off the leash and frolic as nature intended. At the same time, be reasonable: If you do live in a studio, don’t get a bullmastiff. It will be shitty for you and the dog alike, and you’ll likely end up hating it as much as your first college roommate. A good, common sense rule: the smaller the place, the smaller the dog.
How much time do I have? Remember that nearby dog park you’re excited about? It doesn’t mean dick if you don’t have the time to take your dog there. If you’re a young person, you likely have busy professional and social lives; if you still go out every night, a dog may not be the best thing for you. At the very least, find a dog that fits your lifestyle: If you absolutely must stay out every night, don’t get a husky. Some breeds, like bulldogs and pugs, are more than happy to sleep most of the day away. If you’re an avid runner, however, a bigger, more active dog may be right up your alley. Give yourself some time for introspection and figure out what size, age, and breed of dog best fits the life you want to live.
So what breed is right for me? Different breeds will carry different physical and personality traits. It’s important to know those things before you get one. If you hate shedding, don’t get a pug or a lab. Those breeds shed an unbelievable amount of hair and can leave it in places they’ve never been: Penny sheds, and I swear I’ve found her hair on top of my ceiling fan. If the hair makes your allergies flare, find a hypoallergenic dog, such as a poodle or poodle-cross. You should also consider the type of temperament you want from your dog: The dog that’s right for a bachelor likely won’t be right for a family. There are tons of online questionnaires that’ll help with this: Here’s one from dogtime.com that asks about your dream dog, where you live, and how much grooming you’d like to do, and then suggests five possible breeds. It said I should get a Swedish Vallhund, which looks like a very good little dog indeed.
Is another person invested in this dog? This is a biggie. If you have a significant other, what’s the stability of your relationship? You have to remember: The dog isn’t going to think, “That one’s my owner, and that’s just some rando who spends the night a lot.” Both of you will be the dog’s “people.” If a breakup or other calamity occurs, it’s gonna be hard for your little mutt. That isn’t to say don’t get a dog when you’re in a relationship—in fact, a dog can help push an already serious relationship to the next level. But before you make the decision to get any sort of furry pet, you need to sit down with your partner and have a frank discussion about the status of your relationship and where you see it going. Then name the dog Frank.
Do I have the money for this? Getting a dog can quickly become an expensive endeavor. You have to pay for the dog, the initial vet bills, a million chew toys you’ll buy (that the dog will never play with), and food for the rest of its life. The simplest way to cut down on these initial costs is to get a rescue dog instead of buying a purebred: Everyone wants a dog just like the golden retriever they had as a kid, but those fuckers can cost $2,000 or more. Whereas there are plenty of rescue dogs you can get for free or for a small fee. If you live in a city where rescue dogs are in high demand, it can also be cheaper to get a rescue shipped in from a place where shelters are over-populated instead of going purebred.
Also, if you’re someone without much time or space, it could be smart to rescue an old dog instead of a puppy. Yeah, you won’t get to watch it grow, and you don’t get the puppy phase (undoubtedly the cutest of all dog phases), but an old dog won’t need to be exercised as much. They’re generally happy having an owner who cares for them and spending their lives being chillers of the highest order. But old dogs may need more regular medical attention, so be wary of that.
What basics should I buy? There are a few must-haves here, starting with the food and water bowls. Make sure you get something with a solid base if you get a puppy: They spill more water into their food than you thought possible, so get something they can’t tip over easily. You should also invest in a sturdy leash. Borrow one from a friend, then take your new dog to a pet store and find one that fits it, and you, well. You and your dog will spend a lot of time with that leash, so don’t skimp. I was stupid and lazy when I got Penny and used a retractable leash my parents gave me. It took a few months for me to realize she hated the sound of the line retracting and recoiling, but I got a new, more standard leash, and our walks have been a simple joy ever since.
There’s also the matter of getting your dog fixed. If it’s not a registered dog that you plan to breed, please spay or neuter it as soon as possible. Pet overpopulation is a huge problem in America, and it’s because people don’t get their animals fixed in a timely manner. I made the mistake of not getting Penny fixed early, and she went into heat about six months after I got her. It was a big mess. Let’s not get into it.
Seriously, do I have the money for this? You never know what can happen in the life of a dog. They could break a leg or get in a fight or poop something out that you don’t believe could come from a living organism. You need to be prepared for all these contingencies (especially mystery poop). Don’t dine out the first few weeks you have the dog and save the money you would’ve spent on that for unforeseen vet bills. Once you have a few hundred dollars, you will have enough to not worry when minor problems come up. And, god forbid, if a major medical problem presents itself, you’ll already have a good chunk of the money needed to address it.
So am I ready? If it’s not that time yet, don’t be disheartened. In the meantime, there are plenty of people who love their pups but wouldn’t mind letting you dogsit it for a night. Play with other people’s dogs and keep asking yourself these questions and you’ll know when the time is right.
Until then, just revel in the fact that you don’t have to pick up shit, and I do.
Cy Brown is a contributor at Sports on Earth and the Bitter Southerner. He lives in Athens, Ga. with his dingo. You can find him on Twitter @cepbrown.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
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