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What First-Time Dog Owners Should Know
Published: May 25, 2021
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

Congratulations! An adult dog has entered your life. If you’ve never owned a dog before, you’re likely wondering what to expect.

The day the dog comes home, you will need the following.

  • Food. If you know what the dog was eating just before arriving at your house, keep using that in order to avoid upsetting their stomach. If you don’t know, ask your veterinarian’s advice or you’ll just have to guess. Buy small bags until you know what works well. Learn what foods are toxic to dogs (see below) and know that people food can make dogs gain too much weight. While some dogs can be fed one meal a day, most dogs do best with two meals a day.

  • Food and water bowls. Steel and ceramic bowls are best, as plastic ones can harbor bacteria. Wash them regularly in hot water and dishwashing soap, preferably daily. Fresh water must be provided every day. 

  • Collar and leash, or harness and leash. Ideally, a collar should have enough space for you to put a couple of fingers between the collar and the dog’s neck. Harnesses are more difficult to size and get on correctly, so have someone at the clinic or pet supply store help you the first time. Some harnesses are just meant to take pressure off the dog’s neck, some are designed to help the dog pull less (front clip harness), and some are designed for safety in the car. Flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs and those with trachea issues should wear harnesses, not collars. Dogs do not have to be seat belted in, but they should be in the back seat where they cannot distract your driving.

Items you will need eventually, but do not have to have on Day One.

  • ID tag. You can order these at a pet supply store or numerous online sites. Put it on the dog’s collar or harness.

  • Depending on your local ordinances, your dog may need a city license. For the license, you will need to provide proof that your dog has been vaccinated for rabies.

  • It is illegal everywhere in the U.S. for a pet dog not to be vaccinated against rabies. Once your dog is vaccinated, place the rabies tag on the dog’s collar or harness with the ID tag and city license.

  • Toys to entertain the dog, lessen anxiety, and exercise the brain, including food dispensing and puzzle toys. Toys are helpful for redirecting the dog to appropriate items to chew. Don’t let new dogs play with your old shoes or they will think all shoes are toys. Playing with your dog will help cement the bond between you.

  • If you live in heartworm country, you will need to visit the veterinarian as soon as possible for a heartworm blood test before your dog begins taking a heartworm preventive. Many people in winter climates give it year round. Heartworm preventive is significantly less expensive than heartworm treatment, and heartworms can be fatal.

  • Visit the veterinarian for a wellness check even if you don't live in heartworm territory, just to see if all is well. You may want to have your veterinarian check for parasites, such as ear mites, roundwormstapeworms, and hookworms, or conditions such as an ear infection.

  • Talk with your veterinarian about what flea and tick preventive options are best for your dog.

  • Poop bags to pick up after your dog. You can buy the kind that compost, or plain plastic.

  • Shampoo made specifically for dogs, not yours. Human shampoo has a lot of acidity can create an area hospitable for bacteria and parasites. 

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste for dogs. You can use gauze instead of a toothbrush, though. Human toothpaste has fluoride and detergents that are not meant to be swallowed, but doggie toothpaste can and will be swallowed.

  • Toenail clippers or nail board, unless you plan to have the groomer trim them every month or so.

  • If your adult dog does not have a microchip, it’s a good idea to get one in case your dog gets lost.

Equipment you may need

  • You don’t have to provide a specific dog bed, but if you don’t, your dog will end up sleeping in an undesignated spot. Even if you do buy a bed, the dog will not necessarily use it, but they usually do.

  • Some dogs enjoy being in crates or exercise pens, thinking of them as their own den, while others don’t. Unless the dog was a stray, the people who had the dog should be able to tell you. Some dog owners think they are necessary, and some never find a need for one. However, the time you would need it most is the very beginning of the dog’s time with you, particularly when you leave the house. Some people have their dogs sleep or eat in the crate.  Many people use them to housetrain dogs because dogs don’t like sitting in their own filth. A crate also provides a safe place for your dog to stay out of trouble when you are gone.

  • Baby gates to prevent your dog from going in or out of a certain room.

  • Brushes and combs depend on your dog’s needs. Dogs with long coats need to be brushed regularly, and if they are the type to blow coat (shed a large proportion of their coat within a few days as a seasonal change) you will need a brush and a detangler appropriate to your dog’s coat. Ask your veterinarian.

  • Many dogs are nervous when moving to a new home…oops… and you may need some urine cleaner. The ones with enzymes work best.

  • Training classes may be old hat or something new for your new-to-you dog. Providing your dog an opportunity to socialize in a controlled environment may be beneficial. Technically, obedience classes are meant to teach you how to train your dog, so a refresher course for you and your dog is a good idea as long as your dog is not reactive to other dogs or people, in which case a group class may do more harm than good.  

  • If your dog is nervous during their first veterinary clinic – and many are – you can set up a few quick visits just so the dog gets treats, weighed, and used to the clinic.

  • Decide immediately if you will let the dog get on your furniture or bed. If you don't let them start doing what you don't want, your life will be easier.

Time for your Dog

What else does your dog need?

Mostly, your dog needs YOU. They need time with you, they need your patience, they need your affection. They do not need any anger, punishment, or yelling. They do not speak your language but rely on your tone of voice. Most dogs are exquisitely tuned into human emotions. If they don’t behave the way you expect, it is up to you to train them to the daily rhythm of your home. 

Your dog’s bladder will now rule your life. Many dogs are okay with eliminating three times a day: when they get up, dinner time, and bedtime, but that doesn’t mean every dog will only need to go out three times a day. In the beginning, your dog may be nervous and need to go more often. Older dogs usually need to go more often.

Your dog needs exercise, depending on their age and physical condition. Even old, doddering dogs like to go up and down the block, but insufficient exercise for most dogs means they will burn out their energy in inappropriate ways, like chewing things they shouldn’t. Messages are left in other dogs’ urine, and they like to go out and read it and respond. They like to move and smell, leave their scent, and see the neighborhood and the neighbors. These are called sniff walks; they are about enrichment more than exercise and are very important.  Use a leash to prevent accidental tragedy; check to see if there is a leash law in your area.

Most, but not all, dogs want affection – pats on the head, belly rubs, ear scritches, sweet nothings lovingly whispered to them.  A consent test can tell you if a dog likes that kind of affection or prefers not to get it. They may want to fall asleep with their head or entire body on your lap, whether they are lap sized or not.

A regular schedule is best, if it’s possible. They like to know when they’ll be fed, when you’ll get home from work, when they can nestle with you to watch a movie, and what signals bedtime. Try to give meals at approximately the same time each day, such as right when you get up, or right when you get home from work.

Your dog needs a doctor. Soon after your dog arrives, get an appointment with a veterinarian to establish a valid client-patient-doctor relationship. Your dog’s doctor cannot treat anything without having that relationship, and the doctor has to meet the dog in person. If your dog did not come through a known contact, you may need certain vaccines or preventives that you can only get from your veterinarian.

Some of what we can eat or ingest - xylitol, alcohol, Cannabis, caffeine, ibuprofen, some nuts - will make dogs sick. See the box below for more information on toxins. 

Starting a relationship with a new dog is a bit like dating someone new. Everyone is on their best behavior for approximately three weeks to three months. Once dogs get comfortable and come to realize this is home, their real temperament will emerge. They are no longer pretending that they have to behave in front of company. Often when they are comfortable, a rich sense of humor will be seen, or a penchant for playing with you in a certain way. Whatever it is, enjoy it!

Toxic Substances for Dogs

Dogs are a different species, so some things we can eat or ingest may essentially poison them. There’s no need to panic if your 120-lb dog eats two M&Ms, but you do need to worry if your 20-lb dog eats half of a chocolate cake. If you know what your dog has ingested, you can call ASPCA Poison Control Center for a fee, at (888) 426-4435, or contact a veterinarian immediately.

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