The Definitive Guide for First-Time Dog Parents
Bringing home a dog is one of the best choices you'll ever make. You'll be amazed at just how much love, joy and memories a dog will bring to your family.
Getting a dog was the easy choice. Soon you'll have to make many more difficult choices to keep your dog healthy, happy and well trained. You'll realize that there's an incredible variety of options available - enough to make your head spin.
By the end of this guide, you'll get to know all about those options and you'll be ready to make confident, informed choices that work best for your dog.
With hundreds of brands and varieties of dog food on the market, finding the perfect one for your dog will be overwhelming, to say the least. The truth is, most dog foods are nutritionally complete and balanced according to Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards. The best dog food that you can afford will suffice. You may want to compare foods by looking up customer reviews, past recalls and recommendations from animal nutritionists.
There are four types of dog food: kibble, canned, dehydrated and raw. Each has benefits and drawbacks:
Kibble consists of hard, dry pellets. It is usually the most affordable food option and stays fresh for up to three weeks after opening when stored in a sealed package or airtight container. It typically contains a source of carbohydrates like corn, wheat, peas, potatoes or rice, which hold the food together and provide a source of energy, but can cause excess weight gain in some dogs.
The low moisture content of a kibble diet can lead to dehydration, so you will need to make sure your dog always has access to fresh water. You can also soak your dog's kibble in water or bone broth to help keep your dog hydrated.
Canned wet food is typically lower in carbohydrates than kibble. It usually contains more protein from meat and higher moisture content. Unopened, it can stay fresh for months, even years, but leftovers will need to be refrigerated and served within 72 hours.
Dehydrated food is typically made of meat, fruit and veggies that have been baked at low heat to extract all moisture, so it is shelf-stable and can stay fresh as long as it is kept dry in an airtight container. Most contain few or no carbohydrates. Some are served rehydrated, others can be served dry, straight from the container.
Raw food consists mainly of uncooked muscle meat, fish, organ meat, ground or whole raw bones, and may or may not contain fruits and vegetables. Because it is totally unprocessed, it contains live enzymes that aid in digestion and prevent plaque buildup. If you plan to prepare a homemade raw diet, work with a veterinarian to make sure it is complete and balanced. Commercial raw dog food is usually nutritionally complete.
Raw food can contain pathogens that can make you or your family sick if you do not wash your hands, your dog's bowl and food prep areas. However, dogs have a short, acidic digestive tract that prevents pathogens from colonizing and making them sick.
Remember, there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to feeding your dog. Even experts are constantly making new discoveries about dog nutrition, and they constantly butt heads with one another. There's no need to overthink your dog's diet - just do your best.
Adding Variety To Your Dog's Diet
You can mix and match the above food options to fit your dog's tastes and your budget. You can also add fresh foods and certain leftovers from your own meals to boost your dog's diet.
Fruits and veggies like apples (peeled and skinned), carrots, green beans, kale and berries can all make healthy, tasty snacks for your dog. They're high in fiber and low in calories, so they can help your dog lose weight without feeling hungry. Fruits and veggies can be difficult for your dog's digestive system to break down, so they're best fed pureed or steamed.
Fresh meat, like cooked or raw chicken, beef or turkey, is a tasty, nutritious treat or meal topper. Avoid processed, seasoned meats like ham, pepperoni and salami. Onions and garlic can be toxic in large amounts or small amounts over long periods of time; it's safest to simply offer your dog unseasoned meat.
Cooked bones become hard and brittle, and can splinter off into sharp edges, causing serious damage to your dog's digestive system. Raw bones are typically softer and easier for your dog to break down into safely edible pieces, but they can also pose a choking risk.
Fish and seafood can be nutritionally dense, flavorful additions to your dog's diet. Canned salmon and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can soothe inflammation from conditions like arthritis, condition your dog's skin and coat, and support brain and heart health. Only feed canned seafood that is packed in water and does not contain any added salt.
Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can give your dog. They have a biological value of 100, which means the protein is incredibly easy for your dog's body to break down and absorb. Feed raw or boiled eggs - both whites and yolks.
Toxic Foods To Never Feed Your Dog
You've probably heard that chocolate is toxic to dogs. Theobromine, a chemical compound found in cocoa, is difficult for your dog's body to break down. In high doses, it causes muscle tremors, seizures, internal bleeding, and even death.
Dark chocolate is more toxic as it contains a higher concentration of pure cocoa. You can use an online dog chocolate toxicity calculator to help you determine if your dog has eaten a toxic amount of chocolate, or just call your vet.
Fewer people realize that grapes and raisins can also be fatally toxic to dogs. Veterinarians aren't sure why, but some dogs develop acute kidney failure after consuming even small amounts of grapes.
Xylitol is becoming an increasingly common toxic ingredient that is sending dogs to the emergency vet. It's an artificial sweetener found in chewing gum, sugar-free candy, and even some brands of peanut butter. Always read the ingredient list before offering your dog peanut butter.
Feeding The Dog In Front Of You
The best way to choose a dog food is to "feed the dog in front of you." If the current food you are feeding is keeping your dog healthy, there is no need for a drastic change. You may want to rotate between 2-3 types of foods that your dog likes and that do not seem to trigger any food allergies or intolerances.
There are no major differences between grain-free and grain-inclusive diets for healthy dogs with no known food allergies. It's actually more common for dogs to be allergic to chicken, beef, milk, soy or eggs, while very few dogs are actually allergic to grains like corn, rice or wheat. You can feed grain-free, grain inclusive, or a mix of both, as long as your dog seems to enjoy and thrive on such a diet.
Signs That You've Found The Right Food:
- A soft, shiny coat
- Healthy skin with no itching or redness; no lingering odor
- Firm stools that are easy to pick up and do not stick to the ground
- A healthy appetite; your dog eats the meal you give within 15 minutes
- Overall good health; your dog doesn't get recurring ear infections or vomit regularly
Not all health issues can be attributed to diet. Your vet can help you rule out an underlying health issue or determine if your dog needs a dietary change.
Ideally, you will have chosen a veterinarian before or shortly after you bring your dog home. Schedule your first appointment within a few days of getting your dog.
If you acquired your dog from a possibly unhealthy source, like a crowded shelter, there may be picked up parasites or communicable diseases that could spread to other pets in your home. If you have other pets, you may want to stop at the veterinarian first in case your new dog may need to be quarantined.
It's not unusual for puppies to have worms around the time you bring them home. Sometimes you can see worms moving around in your puppy's stool, like tiny, crawling grains of rice. Most of the time, though, you cannot see them until after your puppy has been dewormed. After deworming, your puppy may expel long, spaghetti-like worms in the stool. This should clear up within 48 hours.
Your puppy will need core vaccines for protection against some very serious, yet preventable illnesses like parvovirus and distemper. These core vaccines are usually given over 3-4 vet visits, spaced a few weeks apart. Your puppy can pick up these illnesses in public places until a few weeks after the final core vaccine. So, avoid taking your dog to parks, pet stores and other places commonly frequented by other dogs until you have your vet's approval.
Keeping Your Dog Parasite-Free
Your veterinarian can prescribe a heartworm preventative tablet that you will give your dog each month. Heartworm is a parasite that is spread by infected mosquitoes, which means it's more common in the summer months, though your dog will need to take a preventative year-round. The preventative may also keep other parasites at bay.
Flea and tick preventatives come in many forms. Once your dog becomes a host to one flea, they can quickly inhabit your home, laying eggs on soft surfaces like carpets and curtains. Ticks carry Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and many other diseases that affect both humans and animals. Since fleas and ticks can invade your entire household, you'll need to make sure that they never have a chance to affect your dog.
Flea collars, sprays, and spot-on products are all effective at keeping parasites from making a meal of your dog. Topical products tend to repel parasites, while chewable tablets kill adult pests that bite your dog before they have a chance to lay eggs. Some treatments repel and kill parasites. Ask your veterinarian to help you choose the best product for your dog, particularly if you live in a high-risk region.
Trimming Your Dog's Nails
Even the most gentle dog can turn into a Tasmanian devil when it's time to trim those nails. But it doesn't have to be that way. Using plenty of treats, you can condition your dog to enjoy nail trimmings. Experiment with different methods to see which your dog prefers.
Trimming With Nail Clippers
Clippers are the most popular tools used to trim a dog's nails, but they're not necessarily the best. You'll have to take extra care not to cut the quick, or the blood vessel that runs through your dog's nails. It's easy to see the pink quick through your dog's nails if the nails are clear, but it's harder to see through black nails.
Keep some styptic powder or cornstarch nearby to stop bleeding in case you hit the quick. Your clippers' blades will dull over time, causing them to crush the dog's nail instead of creating a clean slide. You may need to have them professionally sharpened, or you might prefer to replace them.
Trimming With A Nail Grinder
A nail grinder allows you to gradually wear down your dog's nails. This gives you more control than a pair of clippers. You will also be able to create rounded edges. Use plenty of treats to help your dog learn to tolerate the noise and vibration of the grinder.
Using A Scratchboard
A dog who hates having nails trimmed, can learn to wear down the own nails with a scratchboard. A scratchboard is a board covered with sandpaper. You can teach your dog to "dig" on the surface until the nails are worn down to a reasonable length. You may still need to do some trimming if your dog's nails do not wear down evenly, or if you're unable to teach your dog to use hind paws as well as front paws when scratching.
Brushing Your Dog's Teeth
Approximately 70 percent of dogs over age 3 have periodontitis. Dry food does not scrape away plaque, any more than eating a handful of pretzels can take the place of brushing your teeth.
Brushing your dog's teeth with a pet toothbrush can break down plaque before it forms hardened tartar buildup. Sometimes, you may not be able to removed hardened buildup, and your dog may need to be sedated by your vet to remove it. It's easier to maintain clean teeth than it is to remove tartar that has already formed.
Water additives, dental chews and bones can also be used to maintain your dog's dental health. You may want to use a combination of a few methods and see what gives your dog the best results. Check your dog's mouth at least once a week for tartar buildup, unusual growths and tooth fractures.
Grooming Your Dog's Coat
Most dogs are double-coated, meaning they have an undercoat of soft, downy fur and an overcoat of smooth, slick fur. A few breeds have what can be called a "hair coat" or a single coat, which does not have an undercoat.
Single coated dogs do not shed as much and they do not produce as much dander, so they are sometimes referred to as hypo-allergenic. They tend to need regular haircuts and need to be brushed between grooming appointments to prevent matting. Single coated dog breeds include the Poodle, Maltese, Shih Tzu and Bichon Frise.
Double coated dogs may shed during shedding seasons - Spring and Fall - though some shed year-round. These can be long-haired, like the Siberian Husky, Pomeranian and German Shepherd, or short-haired, like the Labrador Retriever, Beagle and Doberman Pinscher. Regular brushing can help control shedding.
Keeping Your Dog At A Healthy Weight
Approximately half of all domestic dogs are overweight. It can be difficult to notice excessive weight gain in your own dog because there are simply so many overweight dogs everywhere you go. Dogs can also gain weight unexpectedly quickly because of their small size in relation to their seemingly endless appetite.
As a general rule of thumb, you should be able to feel your dog's ribs without pressing through a layer of fat. On short-haired dogs, you may be able to see their last few ribs when they stretch. Your dog's waist should visibly tuck in behind the ribcage, and an hourglass shape when viewed from above is ideal. Your dog's ideal weight and body condition will vary based on breed and bone structure. Ask your veterinarian if you are unsure.
The suggested portion sizes on your bag or can of dog food can be misleading. These suggestions do not take into account your dog's activity level, age and current weight. Use the suggested ranges as a start, then adjust accordingly if your dog seems to be gaining or losing too much weight.
Treats can also make your dog gain too much weight. You can break store-bought or homemade treats into small pieces when you need to reward your dog during training sessions. You may need to reduce your dog's meal servings on days during which you give a lot of treats.
From the moment you bring your puppy home, you can begin a bond based on mutual respect and communication. In the past, many dog trainers suggested that you need to be your dog's Alpha, or the dog will naturally try to take your place as a leader.
Be wary of outdated books and websites that tell you that you must "Alpha roll" your dog, or otherwise use overly physical methods to "dominate" your dog. These methods are not only ineffective, but they also can cause dogs to become fearful and lash out in self defense. We now know that being your dog's leader simply means to guide by teaching good manners and respectful boundaries with rewards, rather than force.
Discouraging Unwanted Behaviors
Most of the time, unwanted behaviors can be corrected without the use of force or punishment - you don't even have to raise your voice.
For example, if you catch your puppy chewing on your shoe, you can simply redirect to a toy and use praise when your dog starts to play with it. If you keep your shoes and other tempting belongings away from your puppy, and encourage play with a variety of fun, stimulating toys, your dog will soon learn what can be chewed and what cannot.
Many unwanted behaviors are a symptom of fear or miscommunication. Always consider your dog's point of view. Try offering a more desirable alternative and rewarding your dog for doing the right thing.
Rewarding Your Good Dog
Whether you're teaching a new skill or practicing known ones, it's important to keep your dog motivated with fun rewards. You can reward your dog with treats, toys or praise. Experiment to find out what your dog likes best. Most dogs are highly motivated by food, but also appreciate a combination of all three.
When you're teaching a brand new skill, you will need to use plenty of treats. Concentrate on what your dog does right, and reward your dog's efforts, especially if small, gradual steps are being made towards the correct behavior. Frequent, easily earned rewards will hold your dog's attention and encourage the effort to keep trying.
Dogs are not good at generalizing behaviors. They might always listen in your living room, but have trouble following commands at the park. Practice training in different environments, and reteach old skills if needed.
Punishments and Corrections
It is up to you to decide if you will use any punishments to correct unwanted behavior. Punishments include any stimulus that could startle, scare or cause pain or discomfort to your dog. For a punishment to be effective, your dog must understand what they have done to cause the consequence. You should never punish your dog when you are angry or frustrated.
Be aware however, that punishments can sometimes worsen behavioral problems and lead to fear-based aggression. If you need help overcoming a behavior issue, contact an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist. There are no official certifications needed to become a dog trainer, so you must be careful of who you work with. Professional directories like the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) can help you find a reputable trainer in your area.
Housebreaking Your Puppy
Some puppies are fully housebroken within three weeks, while others can take up to a year until they can be completely trusted not to have an accident.
Your puppy will need to go potty when first waking up, after mealtimes and after playtime. Very young puppies may need to go out every hour or more, and may take a while to fully develop control over their bladder. Avoid punishing your puppy for having an accident. Your puppy may become afraid to relieve him or herself in front of you, which will naturally make housebreaking much more difficult. Always praise your puppy lavishly when they go potty outside.
Whether you use potty pads or not is up to you. Potty pad training is useful if you are not able to take your puppy outside very frequently. Pads can come in handy when the weather outside is frightful, or if you have to leave your dog home alone for many hours. Some people feel that potty training is faster if you do not use pads. Again, it is up to you to choose which will work best for your puppy and your schedule.
Training Your Dog To Love Their Crate
Your dog's crate is a safe haven. Every dog should have his or her own crate. It should be large enough for your dog to stand up, turn around and stretch out.
A crate is essential for housebreaking. Dogs typically do not pee or poop where they sleep. When you cannot supervise your puppy, you can crate them so they will not have an accident. Your puppy can be crated for 2-4 hours before they will need to go out. Older dogs may be crated for up to 8 hours. The length of time they can be crated depends on their age, how much water they have had, and their size; smaller dogs generally cannot hold it as long.
Once your puppy is housebroken, you may decide to always leave the crate door open so he or she can go in and out. Many dog owners continue to lock their adult dogs in crates. Crating your dog can keep them safe and out of trouble when you are not home. Even if you do not use it for training, teaching your dog to settle down in a crate will make it easier for them to adjust if they someday need to be confined during travel or after surgery.
Leashes, Collars and Harnesses
Flat buckle collars can hold your dog's ID tags. Always opt for a collar with a quick-release buckle that can be removed with a quick squeeze. Walking your dog with a leash attached to the collar can lead to neck and thyroid injuries if your dog pulls.
Harnesses distribute pressure across your dog's chest, rather than the neck. Most clip at the back, near the dog's shoulder blades, but if your dog pulls, you may want to opt for a harness that clips at the front, on your dog's chest. A front-clip harness discourages pulling because your dog will end up facing you, not away from you, if he or she pulls at the leash.
Martingale collars are suitable for dogs that have a narrow head and a wide neck, or any dog that has a talent for backing out of a collar. A martingale has a chain or a strip of cloth that gently tightens if your dog pulls, decreasing the chance of escape. The collar should be fitted to tighten to the circumference of your dog's neck, but no tighter, so that it will not strangle your dog if your dog pulls.
Head halters clip under your dog's chin, and look similar to a halter for a horse. They are designed to discourage pulling by allowing you to direct your dog's head, making it easier to guide away from distractions. However, most dogs find the nose strap uncomfortable at first, and it can cause neck injuries if your dog lunges. If you feel you need to use a head halter, It's best to work with a trainer or veterinarian to make sure the head halter is the right choice for your dog, and that it is fitted properly.
Prong collars are a corrective training collar, usually made of metal with prongs that face inwards. If your dog pulls at the leash, the collar tightens like a martingale collar, allowing the metal prongs to deliver an uncomfortable, sometimes painful correction to the dog's neck. These controversial tools should only be used under the guidance of an experienced trainer, and only if no other method has been effective at stopping your dog from pulling.
Electronic training collars or e-collars discourage unwanted behavior by delivering a static correction via two metal prongs. The stimulation can range from slightly uncomfortable to painful. Some models have up to 100 levels of correction. E-collars typically allow you to warn your dog with a beeping sound, and some offer a vibrating function instead of a static shock.
E-collars come in several different types: bark collars that correct your dog when they pick up the sound of your dog's barking, containment e-collars that correct your dog if he or she crosses your property line, and remote e-collars that correct your dog when you push a button. Like prong collars, e-collars can sometimes worsen behavior problems and should only be used under the guidance of an experienced trainer or behaviorist.
Everyone wants a dog that gets along with their friends, family members, and other dogs. However, most dogs are not naturally friendly with everyone they meet. It is normal for some dogs to take a while to warm up to strangers, and to occasionally feel fearful in new situations. You can socialize your dog to help in developing a stable, easy-going temperament.
Socializing your dog means to expose him or her to a wide variety of different people and environments. These experiences always should be positive. Also socialize your dog at his or her own pace. Exposing your dog to too much, too soon, can create a stressful experience that can create or exacerbate fears and phobias.
Raising A Dog That Loves Kids
If you have children, getting a dog will be a wonderful opportunity to teach them how to treat animals. Teach your kids to pet your dog gently on the back or chest, rather than hugging or kissing them. Kids should know that dogs can get grumpy if they are bothered when they are eating or sleeping.
When you do not have children, it may be more difficult for you to socialize your dog around children. You will need to tell other people's children how to approach your dog and how to pet in favorite spots. When introduced on-leash, your dog may feel cornered or unable to escape. Always give your dog the option to walk away if the situation makes your dog feel overwhelmed.
Kids often run around and scream in high-pitched voices. This can trigger your dog to chase them, and knock them down if your dog is larger than the child. Ask kids to avoid being rowdy around your dog, and when that's unavoidable, keep your dog leashed and encouraged to focus on you.
Introducing Your Dog To Other Pets
Dogs can peacefully cohabit with cats and other pets under the right circumstances. Animals of different species can sometimes even play together. However, most dogs have at least some level of prey drive. Slow introductions at an early age will increase the chances that your pets can live together. However, it may not be humane to keep animals together if there is a risk of serious injury.
Always supervise your pets and give them separate spaces where they can spend time alone. If necessary, use baby gates to keep animals separate. Cats should have the option to climb furniture, shelves or climb over gates if they feel annoyed or threatened.
Introductions should be gradual. At first, do not let the animals get face-to-face. They can get used to one another's scents through gates. Then, you can slowly introduce them to one another for just a few seconds, and then up to a few minutes at a time. You may want to keep your dog on a leash, and discourage your other pets from running around to prevent chasing behaviors.
Making Doggy Friends
Going to dog parks can help your dog run off steam, but there are some risks. Dogs can develop fear-based aggression from negative experiences at the dog park. To prevent fights, avoid going when the park is very crowded so your dog will not be overwhelmed. Supervise your dog at all times, and make sure there is no bullying of other dogs, or if there seems to be discomfort, remove your dog from the situation. It's normal for dogs to chase each other during play. Play fighting can be noisy and flashy, but you may need to encourage your dog to take a break when it gets too heated.
Generally, dogs prefer spending time with people rather than with other dogs. Your dog might prefer small playdates with just one or two dogs, or may not like playing with other dogs at all. Whether your dog loves to play with other dogs, or does not have any doggy friends, either is perfectly normal.
Dogs need plenty of physical and mental stimulation to keep them happy, healthy and out of mischief. Daily walks and chasing (but not catching) squirrels in the yard are a start, but they need to be continually challenged with a variety of different activities. There are endless ways you can challenge your dog's mind and body.
Every dog should know the basics: sit, lie down, stay, and come. It's easiest to guide your dog by using your body language and luring your dog with a treat. Combine verbal cues and hand signals to communicate with your dog. Dogs actually respond better to hand signals than to verbal cues - but it's best to teach both.
You might be able to register your dog in a local nosework course, or you can try it at home. It can be as simple as hiding treats around a room for your dog to find, or as complex as hiding several identical containers, one loaded with a target scent for your dog to detect. Eucalyptus essential oil is commonly used in nosework trials, but any distinct scent will work. You can even rub the scent on important belongings so your dog can help you find them. Imagine, you'll never lose your keys again!
You can turn ordinary meals into mentally stimulating games by serving your dog's meals out of puzzle toys. These can be as simple as stuffing a hollow rubber toy with moist food and freezing it, or as complex as hiding your dog's food in different containers around your home. There are even high tech, electronic puzzles that require your dog to complete different tasks to release food. You don't have to spend money on complex toys, though - you can invent games by putting your dog's food in household items like muffin tins, cardboard boxes or water bottles.
There are likely agility classes in your area that you can participate in with your dog. You can train for competitions, or just as a fun way to get exercise together. If you do not want to join a formal agility class, you can buy or make agility equipment to use in your backyard.
Choosing Toys for Your Dog
Every dog needs toys. Some dogs prefer soft toys with squeakers that simulate small prey. Some dogs like tough rubber or plastic toys that hold up to chewing. Rope toys are great for playing tug and keeping your dog's teeth clean, while balls are essential for chasing and playing fetch.
What's The Safest Chew Bone?
Chewing cleans your dog's teeth, strengthens gums and exercises the neck and shoulders. Some dogs will chew surfaces around your home if not given an appropriate bone to chew.
Every chew comes with risks. If the chew is too soft, your dog will quickly break it into chunks that can lead to choking, or can cause a blockage. If the chew is too hard, it can break your dog's teeth. A chew that is safe for one dog can be dangerous for another. Always supervise your dog while he or she chews.
Any time a bone is cooked, it can become hard and brittle. Many smoked or cooked bones can splinter into sharp, dangerous pieces as your dog chews. Some brands slow-bake their bones and are able to maintain a soft, non-splintery texture. Check reviews before buying and always supervise your dog, even if it's not the first time chewing any particular type of chew.
A bully stick is the dehydrated pizzle of a bull. Like all chews, they pose a choking risk, but they are fully digestible and can last a long time for some dogs. They can stain your furniture and carry a smelly odor, so you may want to have your dog chew the bully stick in their crate.
Some dental products are more effective than others. Like any chew, they should only be given if you can supervise your dog. Look for products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal.
Antlers can be a long-lasting chew for dogs that quickly demolish others, but they are so hard that they can cause tooth fractures.
Avoid rawhide that is made of bleached hide, or contains any glues or dyes. If you're unsure, research the brand to find out where the ingredients are sourced and whether there have been any recalls. Even natural rawhide can be difficult for some dogs to digest.
You can find raw bones in the refrigerated section of some pet stores, at the grocery store and from a butcher. Raw bones naturally contain live enzymes that fight plaque, but like any chew, they can lead to choking or blockages.
The Importance Of Quality "Nothing" Time
With any luck, this guide has helped you save time on research and searching for the very best of everything for your dog.
No matter what food you buy, which toys you get, and how you train, the most important thing you can do for your dog is to simply spend time with him or her. Give your dog permission to hop up on the couch with you, or set down a blanket and hang out on the floor. Figure out how your dog likes to be petted. Give your dog deep tissue massages and all-over snuggles, and let him or her rest their head on you. No matter how difficult, confusing, expensive and crazy dog ownership gets, you'll always have that quality "nothing" time to remind you of why it's all worth it.