When I adopted the first dog of my adulthood in 1994, there was so much I didn’t know. I’ll admit it: I was clueless. Happily, one of the many wonderful things about dogs is how incredibly patient they are with their novice humans. Daisy the pit bull taught me a great deal about living with dogs. But, I’m still learning — 18 years and many dogs later. If you’re a first-time dog owner, or if it’s been a while since you’ve shared your life with a dog, here’s some information you’ll find helpful. And, since I’m still learning, I hope you’ll use the comments to tell me what I’ve left out.
The 10 Tips for New Dog Owners
1. They Are What They Eat
I’m embarrassed to recall how, in the beginning, I fed Daisy and her buddy Sam a super-inexpensive kibble brand that was loaded with cheap grains, which quickly pack on the pounds. To add insult to injury, I gave them bites of bagels as treats — then watched as my formerly svelte dogs progressively gained enough weight to make the scale go “Tilt!” Feed your dog the very best food your budget will allow. Don’t skimp on quality. Because so many dogs digest grains poorly (and others are allergic to grains), consider a diet that’s light on grains. And please, no bagels. Offer baby carrots as treats, instead. They’re toothsome, tasty, and healthy.
2. When the Cupboard Is Bare
I distinctly remember how stressed out I used to be upon realizing I’d run out of dog food after the pet food store had closed. Switching brands too fast, after all, inevitably results in digestive upset (read: diarrhea). In these instances, experts would recommend boiling lean chicken meat and mixing it with white rice. But now that I’ve had firsthand experience with what grains can do to dogs (see above), I prefer to march myself to the nearest supermarket, buy a piece of lean shoulder steak, and serve it up raw. For two dollars and change, your beloved carnivore gets a much-appreciated meaty treat — and you won’t have to worry about catastrophic cleanup.
3. Up to Sniff
Speaking of those times when you need to clean up an epic mess, there’s really only one way to do it properly, so that your dog won’t smell a lingering whiff of his error and go back to the same spot for a “do-over.” Get a cleaning product that does more than just mask the mess with strong fragrance. Look for a “stain and odor extractor,” which will remove all trace of foul scent from your home’s hard and soft (upholstered) surfaces. You can even add it to your laundry to eliminate that unmistakable doggy odor. Later, if you like, burn a scented candle to freshen the atmosphere, but don’t leave that candle unattended.
4. Tooth and Consequences
Ignore your dog’s teeth and they’ll go away. It’s really that simple. Brushing Spot’s teeth is a chore that should ideally be performed once a day, and it’s made super-easy if you use coconut oil instead of toothpaste. I’m horrified to recall how I never used to do this, and I’m very fortunate that my dogs kept all their teeth after they were cleaned by the vet under anesthesia. If you just can’t do the daily dog-toothbrushing thing, definitely consider chlorophyll-spiked dental water to keep their mouths healthy. And do offer your dogs raw beef bones. Gnawing at nature’s most ingenious chew toy will keep choppers clean and polished (and keep dogs highly entertained).
5. Once Upon a Mattress
Decide whether you’ll be sharing your bed with your four-footed friend and stick with your decision. Don’t invite her up to the bed one night and sternly shoo her off the next. That kind of inconsistency is confusing to a canine. And it’s not very nice. If you do decide to share your bed with Spot, remember to arm your mattress. Use a moisture-proof barrier like a mattress protector, and always keep extra sheets handy so you’re ready for a last-minute bedding change.
6. You Oughta Be in Pictures
Looking back, I’m sad to see that I don’t have nearly enough photographs of my beloved canine companions, especially the ones who have left me for the Rainbow Bridge. Of course, those were the pre-iPhone days. Today there’s absolutely no excuse for not having several albums full of cute doggie pics, so make good use of your phone’s camera. When you head out for a walk on a clear, fine day, don’t leave your phone behind. I guarantee that will be the day Spot does something incredibly, outrageously photogenic (or meets someone special), and you’ll be kicking yourself for having missed a golden photo opportunity.
7. The Eyes Have It
Do you wear prescription eyeglasses? Then don’t make my long-ago mistake of leaving them within easy reach of prying paws, because there’s a very good chance you’ll return home to find your pricey specs have been chewed to bits. (This is the fate that befell my very favorite pair of irreplaceable 1950s-era French horn-rims that had once caught the eye of legendary Vogue fashion editor Grace Coddington while I worked at that magazine.) It sounds strange, but for some reason eyeglasses are irresistible to some dogs. Four-eyed Fido fanciers need to take extra precautions with needful eyewear. Here’s another preventive wardrobe tip: Don’t leave dog treats in your pockets, as your dog will tear up the garment to get at the goodies. I sacrificed a favorite pair of Diesel jeans to learn this valuable lesson.
8. Dress for Success
In winter, short-coated canines really suffer if forced to brave the elements in their birthday suits. Don’t think it’s dorky to dress your dog up for warmth. By giving Spot a protective layer, you’ll be doing your part to prevent canine hypothermia, which is no laughing matter. My ex once took one of our dogs on an extra-long walk in extra-cold weather without a doggie coat, and the poor dog collapsed upon returning home (but was thankfully back to normal the next day — after a visit to the emergency animal hospital, giving me the scare of my life). In summer, do layer on the sunscreen if your dog likes to bake in the sun. Take care to use a chemical-free brand made for kids, and make sure the one you choose contains no zinc oxide, which is toxic to dogs if licked.
9. Chemical-Free Canines
Since two of my dogs have battled cancer, I became wary of the potentially harmful effects of chemicals on dogs’ health (and, consequently, my happiness). Those chemicals are sometimes hard to avoid. They’re included in food, as well as in products that are applied topically (shampoos, pest control). Then there are the fun, frivolous things we sometimes innocently do, like applying nail polish to dogs’ toenails, but even this can be toxic. If I had to do it all over again, I would keep all toxic chemicals as far away as possible from my dogs. That includes the fluoride in New York City tap water, which I now filter before serving to my pack. (And if you just can’t resist painting your dog’s nails, please use a nontoxic polish brand like Zoya.)
10. Come to Heal
Back in the day, I used to go running to the vet for the slightest doggie hangnail. Today, I’m better equipped to handle small mishaps. Create a canine first aid kit that includes pointy-tipped tweezers, hydrogen peroxide, Betadine (povidone-iodine), rolls of gauze and first aid tape, Bacitracin, and Pawz rubber paw protectors. If, say, you find a tick on your dog, you’ll be all set to remove the varmint quickly and completely, then disinfect the area. If your dog steps on a mean piece of broken glass, you’ll be ready to extract the shard, flush the puncture with peroxide and Betadine, apply wound balm, wrap the paw with gauze, and cover it with a bootie before you go out for a walk. Just don’t forget to remove the bootie when you return home, so the paw can breathe and heal.