If you’re considering gifting someone a puppy over the holidays, (Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali, Solstice, or Eidh), think again!
I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen a holiday card picturing a puppy and a toddler draped all over each other amid a sea of crumpled red-and-green wrapping paper. If I did see such a card, I would buy up the entire stock and burn it.
Despite the image peddled in those holiday cards I’d so happily torch, puppies and busy holidays aren’t a good fit. And neither, generally, are puppies and small children. Here’s why.
Housetraining your puppy is harder during the holidays
Regardless of your newly adopted puppy’s exact age, you must meet certain needs if he’s to have the best chance of growing into a beloved and friendly companion. Housetraining is the first of these. Many young dogs lose their homes because they’ve never clearly learned where pee and poop should go.
Now, the key to housetraining success is to confine or diligently supervise your puppy in between frequent toilet breaks. The ideal is that your puppy never has a chance to eliminate in the wrong place.
For the youngest puppies, “frequent” toilet breaks may mean “hourly” — whenever the puppy is awake.
And wait, there’s more! Excitement and activity—you know, like what goes on during holidays?—get that puppy bladder and bowel zipping right along. Furthermore, up to the age of at least four months, your puppy will almost certainly need an overnight outing as well. That is all sounding so compatible with going to Grandma’s house, and having the neighbors over for eggnog, and staying up late with your kids as they assemble every lego set they got. Isn’t it?
The more times your puppy eliminates where you don’t want him to, the harder it will be for him to learn what you do want?
Puppy socialization is harder during the holidays
If I could get every adopter to do two things for their pup, careful housetraining would be second. Good socialization would be first. You can pretty much always repair a dog’s bad manners, but the behavior problems--chiefly fearfulness and aggression--that are caused by poor socialization cannot be undone. That’s as close to an absolute statement as any behavior specialist is likely to make.
But, you might object, the holidays are an ideal time to socialize a pup. All kinds of people come over. The puppy experiences varied sights and sounds. She’ll just naturally be well socialized, right?
What is appropriate puppy socialization?
The catch is that appropriate socialization is pleasant and relaxed. Holidays mean hustle and bustle and overexcited, overstressed people—I’m not just looking at the kiddies here! Many puppies, especially those who aren’t the boldest in the bunch, can feel overwhelmed. Uncle Jack is feeling his eggnog and practicing the Scottish reel, your brother and your sister are having a screaming fight over who should have inherited Aunt Minerva’s cameos, and while nobody’s looking, the neighbor’s four-year-old decides to experiment with lengthening your new pup’s tail.
Yes, I know, I’m piling it on. But don’t you sometimes feel a bit frayed during the holiday season? Puppies need rest and quiet as well as play and engagement. They should meet the wide world enjoyably and be encouraged to explore—not be swamped by Grand Central Station in the living room.
Puppies and small children don’t mix well
As for that tail-lengthening four-year-old—the whole reason children need parenting, after all, is that they aren’t mature and experienced enough to regulate their own behavior. Sure, at 3 p.m. you tell them that the puppy needs her nap, but by 3:15 they may forget, or may think the nap has lasted plenty long enough.
Every trainer gets calls about how the puppy has started to growl whenever Johnny and Susie come near. Johnny and Susie aren’t bad kids, and the puppy isn’t a bad puppy, either. But the puppy’s need for rest and quiet time has clashed one too many times with the children’s desire to play with their new friend.
I suspect that giving children a puppy at a time when they usually get a slew of inanimate toys may make it harder for kids to understand that, unlike Elmo Live, Baby Dogalini simply can’t be available on demand.
Puppy behavior is tough on kids, too. For instance, I have yet to meet the six-year-old who can respond without squealing and flailing when a puppy’s needle teeth meet skin. Unfortunately, squealing and flailing are a great way to get an already excited puppy amped even more. Someday that puppy will be a mouthy grown dog, and by the way, the child is hurt and scared.
Do pet store puppies come from puppy mills?
Finally, that holiday puppy comes from a puppy mill. The pet store people have learned that their customers want to avoid supporting the detestable puppy mill industry, so lots of them put up signs saying something like “The puppies in this store come from breeders.” Well, yeah, they do. Puppy millers breed dogs. Puppy millers are breeders.
Pet store puppies come from breeders. They just don’t come from good breeders.
Why you shouldn’t get your puppy from a pet store
A careful breeder will grill you like Olivia Benson on SVU before he sends a puppy home with you. And he’ll make you sign a contract promising to bring the dog back to him if you can’t keep her—-never mind if the dog is 15 years old by then. Pet stores, to be blunt, will sell a puppy to anyone with a credit card.
Yes, a conscientious breeder or your local shelter may have a litter of puppies ready to go home around holiday time. However, those objections about chaos, stress, and the bad mix of the young ones’ behavior still apply.
How to choose a dog for your kids
So here’s what you do instead. Prep yourselves with information about dog training and care—I list a few suggestions in the Resources section at the end of this article. Get recommendations for a vet if you don’t already have one. Find out who in your area offers reward-based manners classes for family dogs. Choose a dog bed, chew toys, bowls, leashes, and whatever other doggy paraphernalia suits your fancy. And write your kids an IOU good for one grown-up, child-adoring dog. That’s what goes under the tree.
How to prepare for getting a dog
After the holidays, when life has settled down again, go find that dog.
Picking the pup is the adults’ job—don’t involve the children, because they’ll want to adopt exactly the shy, scared, and otherwise troubled dogs who are least suited for homes with kids.
Arm yourself with a high-quality guide to adoption, such as Sue Sternberg’s Successful Dog Adoption or Kim Saunders’s The Adopted Dog Bible. Better yet, get both. Visit shelters and talk to breed rescue groups. Both of the guides I mention offer detailed advice that boils down to how to find a friendly dog who just loves kids.
Good shelters have screening programs such as “Meet Your Match” that improve the chances of a good fit between you and your adoptee. You’ll also want a dog who’s middle-size or larger— tiny, fine-boned dogs are too easily frightened and hurt by children’s roughhousing and tumbles.
Find a dog who seems right to you and then bring the kids to the shelter to meet him. The squinty, smiley, full-body wag he gives them will drive that imagined puppy clean out of their heads.
For general training and dog behavior, I always recommend Pat Miller’s The Power of Positive Dog Training first. Also excellent are Andrea Arden’s Dog-Friendly Dog Training and Ian Dunbar’s How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks.
If your children are old enough that a puppy is an appropriate choice for you, also check out the following:
Owens, Paul, and Terence Cranendonk. The Puppy Whisperer:A Compassionate, Nonviolent Guide to Early Training and Care (2007) Note: Mr. Owens is not the television personality known as the Dog Whisperer.
Pelar, Colleen. Living with Kids and Dogs … Without Losing Your Mind (2007).
Schade, Victoria. New Puppy! Now What? (DVD, 2006)