Christmas Puppies in October?

Before you plunk down a deposit, be sure this choice is right for you.

How timeless is the image of the Christmas puppy surprise? I have to admit that it was always a dream of mine growing up—waking to sounds of playful barking from under the decorated tree. Nowadays, getting a Christmas puppy is a much frowned upon practice, and with good reason.

Too often, many families have succumbed to the emotional tug of the Christmas puppy tradition without really considering how much of a commitment it is to bring a young life of any species into the family. Puppies are cuddly, cute and irresistible. Adolescent dogs, not so much. For that sad reason, in the spring and summer months, animal shelters often see an influx of surrendered adolescent and adult dogs that were once cherished holiday hounds.

I, personally, still love the idea of a Christmas puppy if the adoptive family has really considered the challenges of raising a healthy, well-adjusted and well-behaved dog and is up to the task.

The responsibility, the work:

Raising a puppy is a big responsibility. It’s not the sort of thing it’s realistic to expect a young person to take on, even if the puppy is officially “Bobby’s dog.” Of course, I encourage the whole family to be involved in training, but let’s face it, parents—you will be the one who ends taking this puppy outside in the cold of winter every few hours for a pee-break. You’ll be the one who has to coax all family members and friends to consistently follow the puppy’s training and behavior rules, lest this puppy grow into an adolescent nightmare. You’ll be the one who teaches this puppy to walk nicely on leash, and you’ll be the one walking and exercising the puppy when your children’s schoolwork and extra-curricular activities keep them from the task. This may be “Bobby’s dog,” but it will be your responsibility.

Here, I also have to emphasize just how critical it is that you provide your new puppy with oodles of exposure to and great associations with as many different real-world stimuli as possible. Even if it seems like you’ve gotten the most easy-going and relaxed puppy around, anything your pup didn’t learn to love before the age of three months usually becomes, by default, scary to the adolescent and adult dog. This process of socialization isn’t just about introducing your puppy to lots of family and friends, but in particular, to as vast a range of people, places, things and experiences as you can manage.

You’ll need to teach your puppy to trust and adore young children with shrill voices and wobbly gaits, people who move with the aid of crutches or walkers, rowdy teens on skateboards, people of all skin tones, wearing everything from baseball caps, hoodies and bug-eyed sunglasses to bulky hats and coats, toting backpacks, carrying ladders, riding bikes and motorcycles or being pushed around in strollers or wheelchairs. Your pup needs to have the best of times around other dogs, in crowds of visitors to your home and also in throngs of humans crowding city streets. You’ll also want to introduce your puppy to other types of household pets even if you don’t yet have any. And don’t forget to seek out barnyard animals even if you expect to be a city family throughout this dog’s lifetime. I actually failed on that last point with a previous dog that met her first horse at the age of six months, and nearly ripped my arm out of its socket trying to escape the sight of this huge, terrifying new beast.

What happens if you fail at this task? At best, sometime during adolescence or young adulthood, your dog could become fearful of the stimuli you missed during the critical socialization period, shying away from certain people, places or things. At worst, your frightened dog may learn to ask for space from these scary things using ritualized canine aggression which may include growling, snapping and even biting.

The cost:

Having a puppy will be taxing to your wallet as well as your schedule and sanity. I recently tallied up the cost of all the basics on my recommended new puppy shopping list (crate, gates, tethers, leash, collar or harness, chew toys, play toys, beds, puppy accident cleaning supplies and the like) and was myself, a little startled to find that the total exceeded six hundred dollars, even at discount store prices.

Puppy vaccines plus spay or neuter will run close to a thousand dollars more, depending on your specific veterinarian. (Early in my adult life, I found out the hard way that skimping on veterinary costs is a bad idea—great vets charge more for a reason.)

Depending on how experienced you are with dog training and how well you do your foundation work, your puppy’s education could range from just a few hundred dollars if all goes perfectly to a few thousand dollars, if things go very wrong.

If your pet needs dog walking, pet sitting or daycare while you’re at work, count on spending twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a day. When you travel and your dog can’t come along, overnight pet sitting or boarding can run from sixty-five to eighty-five dollars a night. When your pet stays at a hotel or motel with you, you’ll probably pay about twenty dollars extra per night for the privilege.

The long-term commitment come-what-may:

Will you be willing to provide this dog a loving home even when the magic of the Christmas season has come and gone? Is your living situation stable? (From personal experience, I can tell you how difficult and expensive it can be to rent with pets—dogs in particular and large dogs most of all.) If it turns out that your children are afraid of your puppy, will you be committed to working it out? If loved ones feel jealous of or resentful towards this time-sucking little bundle of fur, will you still find a way to tend fairly to the needs of both your human and canine family members? If your puppy grows into a dog with special behavioral or medical needs, do you pledge to make sure those needs are met?

Still keen on a Christmas puppy?

Great! Now it’s time to choose the right option for your family. Rescue a mixed-breed puppy (or an adult dog) from a shelter? Or buy from a breeder? Which breed (or mix) is the best fit for your family, type of home and lifestyle? If buying from a breeder, how do you find a responsible breeder who pays special attention to breeding healthy dogs with great temperaments, and not just the “right” appearance? How do you find a breeder who has done tons of careful and effective early socialization with puppies even before they ever reach your home? Once you’re comfortable with your answers to all of these questions, you’re really ready to take the puppy plunge!

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