A few years ago, I came across a sign in the window of a New York City pet store near two bars. I don’t recall the exact wording, but it was something like: “Do not buy a puppy when drunk.”
Most people are not drunk when they decide to get a puppy, but many are so intoxicated by the idea of a lovable young dog that their thinking is seriously impaired. They fail to consider the extensive responsibilities, training, expense and extra housework entailed, and end up having to find their puppy a new home.
That, in fact, is how I came to adopt my puppy Max II. A single working mother with two young children living in Brooklyn could not manage them and the puppy when it came time to house-train him. After spending thousands of dollars to buy him and hundreds more on vet bills, shots, equipment, food and toys to keep him healthy and happy, she realized that a new owner would better suit him and her family.
Fast forward to last week, when I got an SOS asking whether I wanted a companion for Max. A couple in Manhattan had purchased an adorable Havanese-Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. They had expected Grandma, who took care of their young son during the day, to also manage the puppy. Grandma eventually said, in effect, “It’s me or the puppy,” so a new home for this 14-week-old bundle of joy and mischief had to be found. (Unfortunately, I already have my hands full with Max.)
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My recent New York Times column about acquiring Max drew more comments from readers than any I have written since the column began in 1976. Many came from older people who had adopted dogs. I was especially moved by one from a retired judge, H. Lee Sarokin, who lives in San Diego County:
“At age 85, I begged my wife like a 7-year-old to let me have a dog,” he wrote. “We acquired a rescue dog we’ve since learned is a Lhasa apso. If I leave him for a moment to take out the garbage, he greets me as though I had been at sea for years. None of my children ever demonstrated such love. Without him, I would just be some old guy walking the streets, but everybody stops me to pet him, ask his breed, and just be friendly.
“If I were in my 20s, I think I would be getting marriage proposals just because of him. Dog-owning has its burdens, as you’ve stated, but of all the decisions I have made in this life, next to marrying my wife, this was the very best.”
Still, in writing about the health benefits of pet ownership, perhaps I should have been more explicit about what it can entail and warned those unprepared for the demands. I feel lucky to have been spared what close friends have just gone through: the every-two-hour awakenings, the whining, the walking of an 11-week-old puppy not accustomed to being alone.
A savvy reader rightly chastised me for not suggesting that older people opt for a dog that is already housebroken, unlikely to chew everything in sight and mellow enough not to pull the owner off his feet. Perhaps I should also have urged them to consider a kitten or a bird.
I’m allergic to cats and birds, and I wanted a young dog I could train and socialize, one that had not yet acquired bad habits or, worse yet, been abused. I also wanted one that would live at least as long as I could care for him.
I readily admit to the challenges involved, even with an older puppy. Max had to learn he could be on only two chairs, never the bed, sofa or table. Just when I think he’s finally housebroken, he proves me wrong. Anything he finds on the floor is likely to become a teething ring.
I had to board him when I traveled abroad, and get him neutered and immunized against Lyme disease (with a costly, yet only half-effective vaccine). I hire a dog walker on days and nights when I am out, and have him groomed every three months or so.
Expecting to carry Max onto a flight to Los Angeles, I recently bought an under-the-seat carrier and, so he’d be less fearful of it, took an introductory drive upstate with him in it. During a brief stop to shop for supper, he chewed through the zipper, and I returned to find him free in the car.
Knowing the risks of driving with a loose cannon, I’ve since purchased a dog harness that attaches to the car’s seat belt. He can sit, lie down and even look out the window while I drive, and when I make a stop, I can reassure him that I’ll soon return.
A friend who said her daughter was “dying for a dog” asked whether she should consider getting a puppy like Max. Knowing the demands of her work, her high level of anxiety, and the fact that no one is home most of the day to care for a young dog, I advised against it.
I’ve had to conquer my own anxiety about putting Max in his crate when I have to go out or work without distractions.
When it comes to safety, a puppy is no different from a small child. Aside from the potential destruction of valued articles, it is simply too easy for an unobserved puppy to get hurt. Puppies explore the world with their mouths and will chew on almost anything, including electrical plugs and wires. They have to be watched whenever they’re not asleep.
I can’t speak highly enough of raising a puppy with a crate. Max’s predecessor grew up with a crate, which served as his bed and sanctuary for nearly 17 years. Also, dogs rarely soil their crates, making it a lot easier to house-train them.
Some breeders advise attaching a fenced playpen to the crate so the puppy can have access to water, food and a Wee-Wee Pad or a newspaper.
By the time I got Max, he easily jumped out of his pen, and my job now is to wean him from using a Wee-Wee Pad in the house. But he readily goes to bed in his crate every night and sleeps 11 uninterrupted hours until he hears me in the morning.
The Humane Society, which offers low-cost neutering of dogs and cats, has an excellent guide on house-training at www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/housetraining_puppies.html.