As many pet owners will tell you, getting a dog can be one of the best experiences of your life. And if you wanted to, you could probably head to a shelter on a whim and adopt one today. But that doesn’t mean you should — at least not without carefully considering the decision and figuring out if you're actually ready to have a dog.
“Pet parenting is a huge financial, emotional and time commitment,” Nicole Ellis, pet expert and certified dog trainer with dog sitting/walking service Rover, tells Mic. “You’ll want to ensure that the experience is positive for you and your dog, so you can meet your dog’s needs and give [them] a great life.”
Before you get swept up in the cuteness or some romanticized version of having a pet around, it’s important to do research, think things through, and make sure you fully understand what you’re getting into. After all, “when adopting, you are making a commitment to care for an animal for the rest of his or her life,” says Kelly DiCicco, manager of adoptions promotions at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’s (ASPCA) adoption center.
To make sure you're ready before jumping in, start by asking yourself these questions.
1. Why do I want a dog in the first place?
Part of determining your readiness to have a pet is identifying the main reason you want one, Kelly Kandra Hughes, PhD, a former psychologist and current professional pet-sitter and writer, tells Mic. For example, does your desire stem from loneliness and a need for companionship? Is it the hope that a dog will make you more active? Or are you craving more responsibility and structure in your life?
When you have your answer, Kandra Hughes suggests asking yourself how long you’ve been feeling that way, to get a sense of if it's just a fleeting emotion (and perhaps can be filled by something less intense, like a new activity or change in habits) or actually real. “Do you think you’ll be feeling this way one month from now, one year from now, five years from now and 10 years from now?” she asks. “Because that’s how long a commitment to a dog can be.”
Speaking of which...
2. Am I in this for the long haul?
According to the American Kennel Club, the average lifespan for dogs can be anywhere from 8 to 15 years, depending on the breed. Before adopting, make sure you're willing and able to have a dog in your life for that long, no matter what.
“As you go through lifestyle changes such as moves, the birth of children and new jobs, your animal will remain a permanent part of your life," says DiCicco. "If circumstances change, it’s crucial to consider if you will still be able to care for your pet before bringing them home.”
Indeed, while you could bring a dog to a (no-kill) shelter if things don’t work out, you absolutely shouldn’t rely on that plan — and not just because, according to the ASPCA, there are already more than three million dogs in shelters awaiting adoption. “Dogs and humans can bond pretty quickly, [and] if you bring a dog into your home without having thought the decision through, you're risking emotional trauma for both you and the dog if the relationship doesn't work out for whatever reason,” Kandra Hughes explains. “It's not like a pair of shoes that you ship back to Zappos with a prepaid shipping label.”
3. How often am I home?
Quick cuddles and walks around the block are good, but pets require much more than that. “The biggest and most important resource our dogs need from us is our time: time for walks, time for games, time for training, and time spent together, watching the world go by," Kristi Benson, a dog trainer and owner, tells Mic.
All dogs, not just especially active breeds, need plenty of exercise and attention, Benson adds, so if you work long hours, travel often, or just generally spend a lot of time away from home, plan on regularly paying for a dog walker or sitter. If that's not doable, getting a dog might not be the smartest move at this time in your life.
4. Am I ready for a lifestyle change?
It’s not just walking the dog that requires commitment. You may need to cut back on vacations, skip out on happy hours, and rearrange weekends to make sure you’re giving your pup everything they need. Gabby Slome, a dog owner and co-founder of Ollie dog food, encourages potential pet owners to think hard about the realities of things like waking up early to go outside each morning (even in terrible weather, or if you've barely slept) and scrambling last-minute to c to watch your dog when you need to travel last minute or stay late at the office.
“If you like the flexibility of sleeping off a weekend hangover until 2 p.m., getting a pup isn’t a good idea,” Slome says. “Why? Because while you’re drooling a pool onto your pillow, your dog is marking his territory in your now brown- and yellow-stained corner.”
To put it simply — if you're not OK with drastically changing parts of your life for your dog's needs, don't adopt.
5. Can I afford it?
In addition to the initial adoption fee, dogs cost a whole lot of money. “Food, veterinary care, spaying or neutering, and proper identification — [meaning] a collar with tags and a more permanent form of ID, such as microchipping — can add up," explains DiCicco.
Don't forget you also have to buy a bed, crate, and toys, and potentially training classes, if you have a puppy; getting your dog to be housebroken, responsive to commands, and great with other animals requires a lot of time, effort, and yes, money. You may also need to factor in the cost of grooming, as Benson notes that any "doodle" breeds or dogs with “long, luxurious coats” need regular maintenance.
According to the ASPCA, owning a medium-sized dog costs an average of $565 for up-front, one-time purchases, and another $894 a year for ongoing expenses. All said and done, you’re looking at thousands of dollars over the pet's lifetime.
6. Can I handle the tough parts?
Being a dog parent comes with a lot of good, but it’s not all cuddles and unconditional love. For one thing, there's the constant clean-up. “Dogs, especially those breeds that like to dig and puddle hop, can bring a bunch of dirt with them,” says Benson. “This isn’t a big deal for some of us, but if you’re very particular about cleanliness, be ready to give your dog a lot of baths.”
In addition to dirt, you'll also need to clean up urine, poop, and vomit, as unfortunately, even housebroken and well-behaved dogs get sick on occasion. It's natural if this grosses you out, but you have to be willing to clean up the mess anyway.
And then there's the emotional toll of having a pet, especially when they're sick, in pain, or aging. “While the pleasure of a dog’s company is like no other, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye,” Dr. Gary Richter, veterinary health expert with Rover, tells Mic. “This is frequently one of the most difficult moments for dog owners, as our dogs are family.”
With so many factors to consider, it's understandable that not everyone is going to be up for the responsibility of dog ownership. But if you ultimately determine that it’s not the right time for you to get a pet, that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for a time when you will be ready. DiCicco suggests fostering, which means providing a temporary home and care to a shelter dog before it gets adopted.
“Many shelters across the country provide training, resources and materials to prepare you for a foster animal,” she says. “The time required for fostering ranges from a couple weeks to several months, depending on the animal’s needs.”
If you can’t make that commitment, you can still volunteer at shelters and adoption centers, help care for your friends’ and family members’ dogs, and take on dog-walking and dog-sitting jobs. And eventually, you might find yourself ready for a dog of your own, whether because your lifestyle has changed or you've properly prepared for the challenges. Says Ellis, “While dog ownership comes with real responsibility and sacrifice... most pet parents will tell you it’s all well worth it.”