The Rockwellian image of a soft, fluffy puppy donning a red bow under the tree for Christmas certainly has its charm and warm spirit. The love a dog brings to a family is undeniable, but if you're having thoughts of incorporating a puppy into your family's Christmas gift this year, you might want to think again.
The Humane Society, AKC, PETA, dog behavior experts and breed rescue groups all agree that puppies shouldn't be given as Christmas gifts as they tend to be impulse purchases, and it's better to bring a new puppy into the home during a less emotionally charged time of year.
Keep in mind the atmosphere of Christmas morning and how it can frighten a puppy. A pup's first fear/avoidance period typically takes place between 7 – 12 weeks of age — the same time it is developmentally best for it to leave its litter and bond with its adoptive family. Experts emphasize bringing a puppy home during a relaxed, quiet and gentle time void of loud noises, screeching kids, visitors and all of the other out-of-the-norm activities that transpire on Christmas day.
In addition, animal experts remind parents that in regard to a child's mindset, a puppy should not be thought of in the same way as a toy under the tree. If your family is set on bringing the spirit of a puppy into the spirit of Christmas this season, you might consider the approach of how the Simmons family of Donelson handled it last year.
"Don and I wanted our kids to experience the joy and love of a family dog," says Darla, mom to 11-year-old Hailey and 8-year-old Zack. "I always had dogs growing up and remember the amount of time they take — especially when they are puppies — and we typically have a lot of activity around the house during the holidays and didn't want the additional stress of having an actual puppy to contend with in the midst during that stretch," she adds.
Simmons says they decided to incorporate the family puppy into their Christmas last year by purchasing a variety of dog supplies to wrap and place under the tree with the kids' names on them.
"We bought a leash, collar, a few toys and a book on different dog breeds," Simmons says, adding, "and, yes, they were both excited thinking there was a puppy hiding somewhere in the house!"
Instead of a hiding pooch, the kids were told the family would be getting a puppy after the beginning of the new year, and it would be decision everyone in the family would make together.
"Hailey and Zack were excited about being a part of the process and learning about different dog breeds, and it gave them something to look forward to after the holidays," says Simmons, whose family now includes a happy 1-year-old beagle named Max.
The Doggie Decision: What Age is Best for Your Child?
Of course, no matter what time of year your family decides to include a new puppy in the mix, all of the usual things are at the forefront to consider and keep in mind, from what's the best age for your child and financial commitments to housebreaking and training.
Granted, there's nothing cuter than a picture of a toddler cuddling with a puppy, but most animal experts recommend waiting until your child is older before bringing a pup into the family. Celebrity animal expert/trainer Harrison Forbes says puppies and babies are never a good mix, and he doesn't recommend a puppy for any home with children younger than 4 years old.
"Young kids are not able to understand the needs for gentle handling, and pups will teethe and chew and can accidentally injure a small child," Forbes says. "The old notion of 'raising them together' for a better bond has no scientific basis, and often an adult dog will take on the role of protector, while a pup with a small child may develop sibling rivalry."
So what's the "best" age to bring a puppy home? "There's a lot of disagreement about this," says Micki Gorman, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Puppies (Alpha, 2006). "Some say wait until the kids are 6, some say 10. I usually recommend between the ages of 7 – 9."
Make sure your family is truly ready for the commitment of dog ownership. Treat the purchase of your family dog like you would a new car purchase. Do your research, make sure you can afford it and be ready to take on the responsibility — and that's a sticky point. A common mistake parents make is getting a dog with the hope of instilling responsibility in their children. The fact is during a dog's 10 – 15 year lifespan, a child will go through myriad growth and development phases, and, in most cases, his involvement with the dog will wax and wane.
"Don't expect the kids to take on the responsibility," says Gorman. "If parents are thinking about getting a dog, they need to realize it is their responsibility to care for it."
How Much is That Doggie in the Window?
The purchase price for puppies ranges from free-to-a-good-home in the newspaper to $75 – $100 at a shelter to $50 – $2,500 for purebreds, but that's just the initial fee.
Puppies require a series of vaccinations during their first 16 weeks of life, and at 6 months old they should be spayed or neutered, all of which can easily add up to $350. Throw into the mix food, a crate, bedding, toys, treats, grooming supplies, monthly heartworm prevention, flea/tick treatments, etc., and the price of your puppy adds up really fast.
"A study was published that estimates the average price spent on a dog in its lifetime is a staggering $17,000," says Forbes.
Picking the Right Puppy
This is not the time to impulse buy and is why experts don't suggest bringing a puppy home for Christmas. Successfully picking the right puppy takes a lot more than falling in love with a pretty face — although many dog owners claim love-at-first-sight as a truism.
Analyze your family's lifestyle. Are you active, homebodies or somewhere in between? Make sure you find a breed that fits your family's activity level. Dogs that require a lot of activity match up well with outdoorsy, active families.
Determine how much time you have each day for devoting time to your furry friend's needs. Some breeds require daily grooming while others only need a weekly brushing. Dogs need to be exercised daily as well.
"Most people don't do enough research about breeds," says Gorman, adding that she's seen a lot of instances where "couch potatoes" get a lab, and within a few months or less, the dog ends up at a rescue shelter.
There are numerous books, magazines and online resources to help you get started. The Dog Owner's Guide and Pet Place are excellent online resources offering in-depth details of many different breeds, including history and origin, appearance and size, personality, home and family relations, trainability and grooming requirements.
If you are interested in a purebred, contact a reputable breeder and interview him about breed-specific details. The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers a breeder referral services on its website.
"While breeds have certain predictable characteristics, there is always the full spectrum of temperaments within any breed," says Forbes. "Parental genetics are the best predictor. It is always best to see and ask questions about the parents — their good points and problems."
Gorman recommends that potential owners only deal with breeders registered with the AKC.
"There are breeders out there who sell their puppies with papers, but there are a lot of phony registries out there," she warns. "The AKC is the only legitimate registry. It's important to find a breeder who breeds for health and disposition first and foremost."
You may also consider a mixed breed. According to Forbes, mixed breeds usually offer fewer instances of genetic defects, and they have a general heartiness about them, not to mention the public service of adopting a homeless pet.
Whichever route you go, involve the kids in the research. It can be a great educational opportunity for them, and a good way to help establish the bond between your children and the pup.
"The easiest and best way to introduce your puppy into your family is to make your kids a part of the whole process of researching, understanding and selecting a puppy right from the beginning," says Gorman. "Have them go with you to the breeder or shelter, let them interact with the animals and see how the puppy responds to them."
Training Your Kids
Just as you'll set boundaries for your puppy, don't forget to go over a few dos and don'ts with the kids. According to Gorman, here are the basic rules of thumb:
- Be nice to the puppy. Never kick, hit or tease him. Don't pull his tail or yank on his ears. Dogs will lash out if provoked or hurt.
- Encourage your kids to speak in a calm, normal voice around the pup.
- Don't kiss or hug the puppy until he gets to know your family. Even though people show affection by kissing and hugging, in the canine world, it can be perceived as threatening.
- Don't chase the puppy if he walks away. Dogs need to have some downtime, too. Your puppy needs to be able to rest without being disturbed.
- Leave the puppy alone when he's sleeping and eating.
- Teach your kids that only one person should touch the puppy at a time. A puppy can get completely overwhelmed if a bunch of kids descend on him at once, and an anxious dog can bite.
No doubt about it. Housetraining is the one dreaded aspect about bringing home a puppy. But it doesn't have to be. Consistency is the key.
As soon as you bring the puppy home, you need to start the process. Feed your puppy on a consistent schedule at the same time every morning and evening. Do not leave food out all day for him. Once he's finished eating, snap on his leash and take him outside immediately to a particular area of your yard that has been designated as his potty zone.
Bennie Copeland, a local dog trainer and owner of Family Dog Fusion, suggests giving the dog a command like "go potty" or "do your business" so he will learn to relieve himself under your control.
Don't play with him or pet him until after he relieves himself. If he doesn't pee and poop within 10 minutes, bring him inside and put him in his crate for 10 – 15 minutes, then take him back out again to the same area and give him the potty command again.
When he does relieve himself, give him an enthusiastic verbal praise like, "Good potty!" or "Good boy!" followed by a hearty amount of petting and even a good belly rub. According to Copeland, dogs thrive on being touched by their owners, and positive reinforcement goes a long way with all areas of puppy training.
Heel … Sit … Come … Down … Good Boy!
The time and money spent in obedience training will pay huge dividends in the end. Making this investment will result in your family having a dog that is truly a joy to have around and one who understands his place in the family unit.
"Keep in mind that dogs are pack animals, and they need their expectations set so they can learn where they belong in your family," says Copeland. "Training creates a better bond between the dog and family," he adds.
You can buy books and videos that offer guidance, enroll your puppy in a group class at a local pet store or hire a private trainer. The benefit to private instruction is that the trainer becomes familiar with your particular dog and can help you learn more about your dog's breed instincts and temperament, giving you a truly personalized experience.
Like housebreaking, consistency is paramount when working with a dog's obedience exercises.
"It generally takes 30 – 45 times being rewarded for good behavior for a dog to learn each of the commands," Copeland says.
"Meet with two or three trainers and ask about their methods," says Copeland. "Interview them and make sure you're hiring someone that you are going to be comfortable working with."
Whichever method you opt for, and even if you decide to train your pup by yourself, stay consistent and stick with it. Patience is important and will ultimately be the key to success.
"Too many people change training methods too quickly," Copeland says. "They become frustrated within a couple of weeks if it seems like the dog isn't learning, and then they switch to a different method and start over which only confuses the dog."
Love Will Keep You Together
Love is the key to a great relationship with your family's puppy. Dogs don't ask for anything more than to be loved and played with, and the unconditional love they give in return truly makes them man's best friend.
TOP 10 Kid-Friendly Dog Breeds
Perfect for kids who like to roughhouse. Docile, friendly, loyal. Gets along well with other pets.
Good for active kids. Smart, friendly, happy.
#8 Bull Terrier
Friendly and loving. Sturdy frame for rambunctious children.
Very gentle and predictable breed. Easy to train, rarely aggressive. Love to please their owners and protect their family.
Nicknamed "Nature's Babysitter" (think "Nana" from Peter Pan), this breed loves children and is protective of them. Gentle, kind, patient.
One of the best breeds for active, energetic families with older kids. Lively disposition, gentle manner.
#4 Irish Setter
Playful, energetic. Plays well with children and needs lots of exercise.
Very smart and gentle with a playful demeanor. Sheds little.
#2 Labrador Retriever
One of the most popular breeds in the United States. Playful, patient, loving, protective, reliable.
#1 Golden Retriever
Confident, smart, kind and loyal. Neither aggressive nor timid. Extremely patient, making it perfect for kids.