So the kids are clamouring for a dog and you have run out of excuses. Ramona Depares helps you run through the checklists of do’s and don’ts before you open heart and home.

House-train your new pet pronto unless you want to come back home to this.House-train your new pet pronto unless you want to come back home to this.

Dogs make excellent companions. They provide an always-available playmate, are likely to be the one friend who is there throughout a lifetime and also teach the little ones invaluable lessons about kindness, sharing, forgiveness and unconditional love.

If you have kids just past the toddler stage, chances are that they are already clamouring for a puppy, and that it is you – the parents – who are somewhat dragging your heels about it. Unless you are already a committed animal lover, of course, in which case you probably already have a menagerie of pets that accompany your little ones when it’s naptime.

If you are currently attempting to take the plunge, it is well worth your time to carry out some research beforehand and avoid a lot of hassle later – not to mention the potential heartbreak of having to rehome an unsuitable pet. I am aware that this mantra has become a cliché, however do take the attitude that you are getting a pet for a lifetime, and that re-homing is very unfair on the pet (not to mention very difficult). So, like all life decisions think it over carefully because once it’s done, it will be very difficult to undo.

One of the first things to keep in mind is the size of dog that you can realistically adopt. Size is going to be a factor whether you opt for a purebreed or a rescue dog. It is useless allowing yourself to fall in love with that huge boxer/labrador mixed breed, if you are living in a two-bedroomed apartment. An unwise choice is likely to lead to frustration once the dog has settled in.

Your lifestyle is another factor when determining the best size of dog for your home. Are you the active sort, constantly out on walks and picnics? Or is it already a miracle if you haul yourself to the grocery store on foot? Consider these elements careful as, despite all the best intentions in the world, it is unlikely that you will be drastically changing your lifestyle just because you adopted a dog. And do not, for one single minute, fool yourself into believing that the children will take care of the new pet’s exercise needs. They won’t.

Most medium-sized dogs will be happy with two 30-minute walks a day. Anything larger will require longer and brisker walks, as well as more rumbunctous playtime. Also bear in mind that terrier-type dogs, despite their relatively small size, are actually extremely energetic and will require quite a bit of time and effort to keep their innate hyperactive nature in check.

Once you have decided on an approximate size and breed to suit your family and lifestyle, the next step is the most obvious one: do you go to a breeder’s, or do you go to a dog shelter? If you really want to do a good deed, always opt for a rescue dog. Firstly, because the pedigree certificate is but a piece of paper and nothing compares to the joy of knowing you’ve given a dog a loving home forever. Your altruism will definitely be rewarded.

It is useless allowing yourself to fall in love with that huge labrador if you are living in a two-bedroomed apartment

There are any number of dog shelters in Malta that regularly have puppies and fully-grown dogs up for adoption: the SPCA and the Island Sanctuary spring to mind. Before you decide which dog will become the new family member, do not be afraid of asking all the questions you need, particularly about socialisation and behaviour issues.

Things to keep in mind are the following: is the dog housebroken, and if not, do you have the patience to do it yourself? Has the dog already been exposed to children? Does he have any socialisation problems with respect to other dogs? Is he neutered? Are there any medical conditions you should be aware of? How long has he been at the shelter, and how will this impact his re-homing?

Finally, the decision is taken – you spot a likely candidate, his history seems to be just fine and, most importantly, your kid is already in love. Before you know it, the new member of the family is hitching a ride back home with you. Congratulations! Things just got real. Question is, now what? The answer to that being that now is the time to institute a decent discipline routine – and I don’t mean just for the new dog, but also for your children.

Bear in mind that kids will be kids. Depending on their age (the younger, the more important this step becomes) you need to make them understand that a dog is not a toy but a living being. Ideally, their new playmate is treated in exactly the same way as another human playmate would. In other words, explain that much as it is not okay to pester their friends, pull their hair and generally be nuisances, it is also not okay to behave like that with Fido.

Although the issue usually doesn’t arise with family dogs, it is also a good idea to teach the kids certain precautions, such as why waving your hands aggressively in your dog’s face is asking for trouble. In reality most family dogs will tolerate the excessive attentions of a little human very well, as long as they have been properly socialised (as opposed to being kept chained on some roof all day). However, why not also employ some common sense in order to avoid unnecessary incidents?

The discipline issue, sadly, doesn’t stop there. The likelihood is that there will be a certain amount of house-training that you will need to carry out with your new pet, even if he has already been house-broken.

Whatever commands you are teaching him, make sure that the whole family – and that includes the kids – is on board with this one. It is useless teaching Fido that the sofa is out of bounds, if the minute your back is turned, your 10-year-old encourages him to put his muddy paws all over it. Likewise, if there are any snacking rules or peeing and pooping times, get the kids to co-operate – otherwise, you will have a very confused dog who isn’t quite sure what you all expect of him.

Which breeds make the best children’s companions?

Dog behaviour consultant Robert Spiteri offers his advice.

Teaching your new pet about boundaries in the home is important.Teaching your new pet about boundaries in the home is important.

What do you advice as a pet for young children – a pure breed or a rescue dog?

Allow me to start off by saying that no dog is the responsibility of young children – it always remains the parents’ responsibility to take care of the dog and to gradually teach the child to be responsible too. However, parents should always monitor that the dog is well taken care of and not mishandled by a child.

Ultimately, there is no difference between having a pure breed and a rescue dog; both require the same type of care, training and dedication. Unless you are really into some sort of sport, or really love a particular breed, I would opt for a rescue dog. You would be saving a life and also teaching a really good lesson to your child – kindness.

If you opt for a breed, how do you know if it’s a reputable breeder?

Start off by asking around; go and check his dogs and the environment they are kept in. Are the dogs like family, or just ‘stock’ for him? Does he walk and train them?

Before you purchase, make sure that you check any health issues and whether the parents had all the required tests done. To give one example, it’s advisable on large breeds to hip/elbow score the parents before mating. Make sure that you don’t take the dog before it is eight weeks old – a serious breeder would tell you this himself, as the pup would still need to socialise with his siblings, learn how to interact with others, play, and get some disciple from the mum. A serious breeder would also offer continuous support and care for the pup you took.

Do you think big dogs and children are a dangerous combination?

Dogs can be very caring on children irrespective of size and breed. However, it is always very important to socialise dogs properly around kids, and they should learn not to be boisterous or jump. It is up to the parents to make the dog feel comfortable around children. Always keep an eye on the kids themselves, so that they do not play rough or hurt the dog in any way. The latter behaviour could lead to a stressed dog that might react to defend himself.

It’s also advisable that parents keep the dog happy around the child and, in the case of newborns, not to lessen his time and importance because of the new arrival. This will avoid any conflicting situations.

So which big breeds would you advise and why?

Though I have my personal, favourite breed, I am not pro or against any particular breed where kids are concerned. However, before adopting or buying any dog, the owner must make sure that he has enough time to care for the new member, and to offer exercise, food, care, play, and affection as part of the daily routine of each dog.

When picking your new puppy from a litter, what should you look out for?

The first things to consider are the health and general condition of litter and mother. The temperament of the mother is quite a good indication of the temperament of the puppies. Some people like to take some time to get to know the mother and to observe the litter playing together.

Usually, the dog that is first to greet you is the strongest; he is not afraid and might tend to be a handful. The shy one in the corner might be a bit problematic with kids that are a bit active and invasive. So best opt for a calm, but social, pup. And always remember that whatever characteristic the pup might develop, you can always seek professional help from a dog behaviour consultant to rehabilitate.


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