Seven Habits for Highly Effective Cohabitation

About two years ago, my husband and I adopted a beautiful German shepherd mix, Wyatt, from the Arizona Humane Society. I knew we needed food, bowls, some toys, a collar and leash, and other basics to get him set up, but that was where my knowledge ended.

Honestly, I was a little nervous and a lot scared. I had never lived with a dog, or any animal for that matter, and I had no idea what to expect. I thought if we put him in the backyard, fed him every day and took him to the vet once or twice a year, he'd be happy. Luckily, my husband had more knowledge than I did, and our vet welcomed my numerous questions about how to take care of Wyatt. Even with our vet's input and advice from friends, there were still things I had to learn on my own.

1) Let your dog in the house.
Most rescue groups and responsible breeders require adopters to allow the dog in the house. Dogs are social creatures and need to be part of a pack. "It's against their nature to be left alone in the backyard," says Dr. Monica Stern, a veterinarian at Blue Cross Veterinary Hospital in Phoenix. "If they're left in the backyard, they become lonely and bored, and that's when they get destructive." Outside dogs can also become a neighborhood nuisance, according to Rob McGehee, shelter manager and adoption counselor at the Arizona Animal Welfare League. "They will bark all the time and may escape from the yard and get hit by a car" if they don't get the attention they need.

Some people will rationalize leaving the dog outside, saying he is a watchdog. According to the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley's (Ca.) website (, a dog will not feel that the house is his to protect unless he is allowed in the house. If you want a dog to be a watchdog, how much can he help if someone breaks in and he is outside?

2) Expect the house never to be clean.
Between the shedding, nose prints on your windows and paw prints all over the floor, keeping the house spotless is a futile battle. Dogs shed, even the shorthaired ones. Some people think certain dogs, such as poodles and schnauzers, don't shed. "There is no such thing as a non-shedding dog, with the exception of hairless breeds," explains Dr. Tracy Land, veterinarian at Project Spay/Neuter, Inc. in Cumming, Ga. "They all shed. Long, curly or double-coated breeds may not drop as much fur, but they get matted if not brushed. Non-shedding breeds, no matter what someone may claim, just don't exist." But you can adjust to this. "Dog hair is a part of life," says Lisa Graham, mom to Mason and Bandit, two Rottweiler mixes. "I've gotten to the point that even if [dog hair] gets on my plate, I just pick it off and keep eating."

3) Make friends with your vet and the staff.
With a new dog comes new questions, and your vet is the best source for answers. But don't underestimate the staff at your vet's office. Stern reports that her staff can help in almost any non-emergency situation. In case of an emergency, they have direct access to her.

4) Give the dog time to adjust.
Dogs need time to learn what is expected of them and what the house rules are. Kim Dallas has three rescued Springer Spaniels, and it has been her experience that when a dog first comes home, he may not eat for a few days and may not act according to his true personality. This can be anything from not barking to submissive or excited urination for the first few weeks. As he gets more comfortable, he may bark more as a sign that he is protecting his territory. Similarly, the submissive or excited urination may stop as he learns that he is safe.

Crystal Coll, former trainer at the Arizona Animal Welfare League, tells her (human) students: "Set your dog up to succeed." This can include limiting access to the rest of the house while you are away, crate training and, perhaps most important, being patient. Dogs don't come into a home knowing how to behave; you have to teach them.

5) Take obedience classes.
"Obedience training is more than just learning commands," says McGehee. Even if your dog already knows commands, McGehee says obedience classes will teach you how to communicate with your dog and can help him adjusting to his new home. McGehee, Coll, Stern, and Land all pointed out that since dogs are social animals, obedience classes help develop a bond between the dog and the human. Socializing with other dogs and people helps their self-esteem and stimulates their mind, according to Stern.

6) Never leave the dog alone with children.
"My motto is kids are not supervisors; they are supervised when it comes to dogs!" says Coll. Children, no matter how well meaning, can hurt dogs if they are not supervised. For example, a child may think a small dog is a toy and handle the dog rough or toss him around. This can injure the dog or the dog may bite the child out of fear. Without supervision, the parent wouldn't know why the dog bit the child and give the dog away. It's natural for a child to be curious and he may touch or poke at the dog different than what the dog is used to. Some dogs have a temperament that allows this type of handling, while other dogs don't. It's critical to not only teach children how to treat animals, but also watch to make sure the child is treating the dog properly.

7) Spay or neuter!
If your dog isn't already spayed or neutered, make an appointment to do so right away. In addition to helping curb pet overpopulation, spaying or neutering is better for your dog's overall health. Land explains, "Neutered males don't have testicular cancer or the prostate problems common in intact dogs. Females spayed before their first heat cycle have 96.4 percent less breast cancer, a common cause of death. They have no risk of uterine infection or the many complications associated with pregnancy, whelping or raising a litter."

Even if you have a puppy, there is no reason to wait until he is six months old, a common misconception. "No one seems to know what the old six months standard was based on," points out Land's Web site ( In fact, "the younger the patient, the less anesthesia required, the faster the procedure, (there are) fewer complications, and a shorter recovery period. Complication rates are actually lower at seven weeks than at seven months," the Web site says.

Spaying or neutering also decreases a dog's desire to roam, and this means a safer pet. According to Land, "In our area, 80 percent of the dogs killed by cars are unneutered males." Finally, because spayed or neutered dogs are more likely to want to be with you than go out and find a mate, they are more affectionate pets.

Bringing a dog home is exciting and a little stressful, but it doesn't have to be scary for you or the dog. Knowing what to expect will make it easier for everyone involved, and you can start enjoying your new family member right from the start.

Pets 911 is a free public service consisting of and a bilingual, toll-free hotline, 1-888-PETS-911. Pets 911 is the nationwide network of animal welfare organizations working together to make it easy to return your lost pet home, as well as provide you with the community-specific information needed to better care for your pets. Information and advice contained on this site is for your consideration only. Please consult your veterinarian for specific advice concerning the care and treatment of your pet.

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