Marty Becker's Advice to Understanding 'Your Dog'

Veterinary expert and animal lover helps you understand your dog.

ByABC News via via logo
April 15, 2011, 7:34 PM

April 15, 2011— -- Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker understands how trying it can be to have a new puppy. In his new book, "Your Dog: The Owner's Manual," Becker conquers every part of the dog-owning lifestyle, such as finding the right pouch, solving behavioral issues and preventing health problems. This road map to pet ownership is a must read for dog owners new or old.

Read an excerpt from "Your Dog" below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library.

Chapter 1

What Are You Looking for in a Relationship?

All dogs started pretty much the same, as wolves who hung outaround humans for scraps. Eventually, the relationship grewcloser; the animals best suited to hanging around were theones who bred, and they started to change to suit the environmentthey were in. In time the dogs evolved into something like what'scalled a pariah dog— a medium-sized, brown, agile, short-haired dogwith a long snout and erect ears. You can still find dogs like these allover the world, hanging out on the edges of human society. If dogs areleft to breed as randomly as possible, the pariah dog is what they looklike.

But we like a lot of different things in dogs, don't we? We like dogsin all sizes, shapes, and colors, with all kinds of ears and tails, long-haired, curly-haired, short-haired. . . the list goes on. It wasn't just forreasons of appearance, of course. For many years we counted on dogsto help us by herding our livestock, protecting our homes, pullingwagons or sleds, or helping us to hunt our dinners.

While a few kinds of dogs, mostly small, were developed solely ascompanions— and even they had some purpose as heating pads in thedays long before central heating was invented— all the rest had jobs.Our ancestors no doubt liked their dogs, told them they were gooddogs, and were even proud of the work they did and how well they didit. But few could afford to keep a dog who didn't earn his own way.

Today, it's the reverse, and very few dogs earn their own way. Ourdogs, as I always say, are "born retired." Despite all that work ethicand all those differences we've bred into them, they're all doing prettymuch the same "work," these days—hanging around with us whenwe're home, and sleeping on the couch when we're not.

But the dogs they once were are still in there, and that means youhave to figure out if you can live with who they are and find things forthem to do if they aren't the couch-potato type. If you don't, neitheryou nor your dog will be happy— and speaking as a veterinarian, I cantell you that what happens when a dog is bored and unhappy is goingto be a bad thing for the dog. He'll either be fat and sick before histime (if he's the kind of dog who can stand just being on the couch) or,if he can't stand snoozing while you're at work and does an UnwantedExtreme Home Makeover, he'll soon be looking for a new home.

Yes, love can and does conquer all, but it doesn't do so easily. I'msuggesting some introspection before you get a dog so you have fewerproblems and more love.

Define Me, Define My Dog

Who are you now, and who will you be in ten years? You might be surprisedat how different those answers can be. While nothing in life's asure thing, if you're going to spend the next ten years building a businessempire, raising kids or retiring to a life of active leisure, you needto think about how this is going to affect your choice of a dog. Becausein fact, there really is a dog for almost everyone who wants one, butdogs can be so different— even siblings— that you really need to putsome effort into getting a dog to have any hope of keeping a dog.

Take me, for example. I'm farm kid, born and raised on an Idahodairy. I grew up with big dogs, farm dogs and hunting dogs whoworked as hard as we did with all the hard physical labor of countrylife. I'm still a country boy, and home is our ranch in northern Idaho.My wife and I have been around large animals— cattle and horses—all our lives, and we still get up at dawn every day and do ranch chores.We love the outdoors, and I don't even mind putting on my overallsand barn coat on bitter, cold days to go out and care for the horses.

Bet you have me pegged as a guy who'd have a big, strong dog, right?For much of my life, you'd have been right, and our family still has abeloved Golden Retriever, Shakira, otherwise known as She-Crazy for her boundless enthusiasm and her ability to play fetch until long aftermy arm wants to call it quits. But chances are she may be the last ofthe big dogs at our Almost Heaven Ranch. We've gone crazy for littledogs, starting with Quixote, the little canine cocktail you see on thecover of this book. Sure, I tell my poker buddies that he's my wife'sdog, but that's as big a bluff as the aces I want them to think I'm holding.Quixote and the more recent addition, Quora, another little poochpastiche— along with my dog- trainerdaughter's little dogs, Willy and Bruce—I call them the GrandPugs— are where we are now. We'reolder, we love to travel, and we like having smaller, more portable dogs.Ones that fit in the seat between us or under the seat on the airplane.

That's not to say I don't love all dogs— I'm a veterinarian, after all—but my own perfect match in a family dog has been downsized, and Iwas smart enough to know it. Or my wife was, really.

Just don't anyone tell my poker buddies that my little dogs not onlywear coats in the winter, but that I'll actually put the coats on them.Repeat that, and I'll deny it to the end of my farm-boy days.

But enough about me. Who are you? Are you a runner looking for atrail companion? A busy parent looking for a little help with babysittingand teaching kids responsibility? A young city hipster looking to impressothers at the dog-friendly café? A person looking for a new hobby to gowith a new dog? Are you slowing down— or do you want to? Are you livingin an apartment, on an acre in suburbia, or on a hobby farm?

If you want a dog who needs more than you can give him in termsof time or exercise, do you have or can you afford to pay for a supportsystem? Do you hate dog hair or are you good with picking the occasionalstrand off the butter or business suit without a flinch? Are you,personally, ready to take on the care of another living being, or is gettingyour own self fed and dressed about as much as you can handle?(I throw that one in for those Paris Hilton wannabes who forget thatdogs aren't fashion statements or canine accoutrements, and they doneed to get out of those designer handbags to do their business.)

In other words, figure out who you are, and you'll be better able tomake a good match. Owning a dog is a lot like finding a mate, afterall— except that odds are for many people that their dogs will live longer than their marriages last. Take your time and know yourself. (Not bad advice for that marriage thing, too.)

Think Twice about That New "Hot" Dog

How do dogs go from "What on earth is that?" to "I gottahave one, too"? Publicity, of course. A breed or mix turnsup in a popular movie (like Disney's Dalmatian movies), on ahot advertisement (think the Taco Bell Chihuahua), or a long-running TV series (Frasier, whose cast included a Jack RussellTerrier) and suddenly you have a new "it" dog.

There are two problems with choosing the popular dogof the year. First, the breed may not be right for you. Canineactors are well-trained and never reveal the true characteristicsof a breed, such as high-energy (Dalmatian), barkinessand pushiness (Chihuahua), and high-energybarkiness, pushiness, and an unstoppable desire to dig (Jack Russell).While every breed is right for someone, no breed is right foreveryone. If you're thinking of a breed that's suddenly popularbecause of a turn in the spotlight, make sure you're notbeing swayed by a passing trend.

The second problem: When a breed becomes hot, it tendsto encourage people who should not be breeding dogs atall to jump into the market. The resulting puppies are morelikely to have health problems or be poorly socialized becauseof the corners cut getting puppies produced and sold beforethe next star dog starts rising.

The Cost of Having a Dog

Once you've figured out the kind of person you are and will be in thelifetime of your prospective dog, it's time to look at the life you lead.After all, the fact that you love to run, and would love running evenmore if you had a dog with you, doesn't mean a thing if you can't fitrunning into your schedule. And while there are lots of ways to savemoney on caring for your dog while not scrimping on the necessities, ifyou're really struggling to make ends meet you might need to put offowning a pet until things are going better for you.

Money is an issue with all dogs—small dogs aren't all that much lessexpensive to care for than large ones, except in the category of food.They still need regular veterinary care, and many have health issuesthat are related to their size, especially the tiniest of dogs. And lots ofsmaller dogs need professional grooming that big dogs don't.

Doggie Details

How much does it cost to keep a dog? Trade groups that trackthese things put the start up cost after adopting a dog (whichdoesn't account for the cost of purchase or adoption) at an averageof about $1,000, with annual upkeep of about $700 a year.Bear in mind two things: first, that costs are often higher in urbanareas and on both coasts, and less expensive in rural areas and inthe Midwest and South; and second, that "average" includes peoplewho frankly are barely spending enough on their dogs to keep frombeing hauled in by humane officers and charged with neglect.

If you opt for a high-quality diet (recommended), a solid preventive-care regimen from your veterinarian (also recommended) includingparasite control (protecting your dog and your human family, too),along with some fun purchases that can also make your life easier andkeep your home cleaner (fun? easy? you bet!), you can easily doublethose guesstimates—and still be hit with some big expenses that canbe financially and emotionally devastating.

Is a dog worth it? That's a question only you can answer, but if youthink you want to have a dog in your life, do be prepared to spendsome money on your pet. A high-quality diet and good preventive caremay seem like one area where you can scrimp, but it's really not.Taking good care of your dog every day is a good long-termstrategy, not only for avoiding budget shock down the road but also for keepingyour pet happier, healthier, and longer- lived.

Taking good care of your dog is a good investment, and it's a responsibilityyou owe to your dog. Cut the budget in other places if youmust—your pet doesn't need a biker jacket or an expensive collar, andno dog was ever hurt by an owner who buys in bulk—but make sureyou can cover the basics.

Calamity Coverage: The Time Is Now,For You, Your Pet—and Your Vet

As a veterinarian, I've seen too many pet owners faced with theworst choice of all: choosing euthanasia over treatment for noreason other than expense. There's even a term for it—economic euthanasia.

I don't want this to happen to you or any other pet lover, whichis why I'm a firm advocate for pet health insurance. With so manygood companies and such variety of choices available now, I'vesimply never been a bigger believer.

Truth to tell, I don't think there's a veterinarian alive who hasn'tgiven away care, reduced the cost or offered payment options, butyou can go only so far with that. After all, a veterinary hospitalcosts money to run, and as with all businesses those expenses goup all the time. Trust me when I say: if you were in it for the moneyrather than the emotional rewards, veterinary medicine would be avery poor choice of profession.

I'm not complaining. I'm just explaining why you need to thinkabout what you'd do if you were facing a really big veterinary bill.Because you might need to, and your veterinarian can help only somuch and no more. And even if you can come up with the money—on credit, for many people— is paying off that charge or loan agood plan for you down the road?

Pet health insurance is really more like car insurance than anHMO: Although companies such as Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI)do offer wellness plans that may be helpful, especially if you'renot good at saving or budgeting, the real benefit of the plans isthat they cover a large part of the cost if something really badhappens— if your dog gets loose and is hit by a car, for example, oreats your underwear and needs surgery to clear the obstruction, orstarts limping and it turns out to be cancer (which has never beenmore treatable, but treatment can be very expensive).

You'll still want to put some money aside— a pet health savingsaccount set up like the old Christmas club savings plans(putting a set amount aside every month into an account with adedicated purpose, whether it's buying gifts or paying for a possiblepet emergency) is a great idea. Pet health insurance reimbursesyou for part of the expenses, not all, and you still have topay your veterinarian up front, even if you're using a credit line asa temporary measure.

Pet health insurance isn't supposed to pay off more thanyou put in every year. It's not supposed to save you money on veterinarycare and won't if your pet stays healthy. That's what insuranceis all about: it's there when you need it, and it could save yourpet's life.

Check it out. You'll want to look at all the companies, talk toyour veterinarian, read the reviews, and fiddle with the formulasonline to see what company and choices best fit your pet.Preexisting conditions are never covered, but a great many otherthings are.

It's worth it to never have to say, "I can't afford that, Doc,you'll have to put him down," or what most people say in orderto live with themselves—"We decided we didn't want him to sufferanymore,"which could be interpreted as "I can't afford to dowhat's best."

Time: No One Ever Has Enough of It

You have enough money—or at least you're pretty sure you do. Do youhave enough time for a dog? Some dogs, like some people, are highmaintenance— they need lots and lots of attention. Sometimes thatattention is in caring for a complicated coat, but usually the big timesuck is in the category most Americans say they don't have time foralready—exercise.

All dogs need exercise. Even little ones. Even old ones. Even oneswho really don't seem to mind a sedentary lifestyle. They need exercise,just as you do, and for the same reasons. Exercise helps keep theirheart healthy, helps keep their joints strong, helps keep their weightdown. (Did you know that veterinarians say the majority—yes, more than half— of all dogs they see are overweight or obese? The statisticsare even worse for some breeds that just seem to be born to blimp—Flabadors, er, I mean Labradors, Beagles, and Pugs, to name just three.)

Exercise—or more specifically, the lack of it— is also one of themain reasons why dogs misbehave. They need to burn energy. If youdon't find something for them to do, they'll find something to do ontheir own, and chances are you won't like their choices in activities.

Now, while it's true you can get a doggy treadmill (some look likehuman treadmills; the ones for small dogs look more like hamsterwheels), or get someone else to exercise your pet, the fact is that gettingout with your dog is good for you both. That's not just me talking,by the way: studies have shown that people who walk their dogs benefitfrom the activity as much as their dogs do. So much so that I wrotea book on the subject, Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide toLosing Weight and Gaining Health Together, with Robert Kushner, MD,an internist and nutritionist who's an expert on human weight loss.

The least amount of time you can get away with is probably anhour a day, all total, for feeding, cleaning up after, and a little play andexercise. For larger dogs— or high-energy small ones, such as most ofthe terriers— there simply isn't a high end on the amount of time youcould spend with them. They'll happily jump up and be ready to goevery time you pick up the leash or the car keys.

There are always imaginative ways to get your dog exercised withoutyou exhausting yourself, of course. Fetch is always great for this,and swimming is another energy burner, especially when combinedwith fetch. Toys that require dogs to work for small food rewards alsocount, and are really well suited to those times when you simply can'tkeep your dog busy, such as when you're out earning the kibble.If you can't carve some time out of your schedule for a dog of yourown, you might consider volunteering at a shelter, fostering now and thenfor a rescue group, or walking a neighbor's dog. If you can make time foryour own dog, though, you'll be healthier for the time you spend.

Day Care, Dog-Running, and Poop Scoopers

Gina Spadafori, who coauthored this book, has a friend who'san ultramarathoner. The regular twenty-six-mile endurance run isnothing for him— his hobby is running in races of fifty to a hundredmiles or even more. He has been a runner all his life but just startedultramarathoning in his fifties.

That sort of athletic endeavor requires a lot of training, so hefigured he might as well start a business to take other people'sdogs with him on training runs. Gina's three retrievers go out withhim two or three times a week and are far happier for it (as is Gina).

While you'll surely find more dog walkers than dog runners, thetrend toward a wider array of pet services has been growing inrecent years, in ways people never could have imagined.

People may roll their eyes at the idea of doggy day care, forexample, but if you dream of having a large, active dog but youwork long hours, a place for your dog to play and run all day maybe just the ticket. No "dog guilt" for you, and at the end of the dayyour pet will be dog-tired and just as happy to crash on the couchas you are.

What about paying someone to clean up your yard? If you canafford it and have better ways to spend your time, why not? Afterall, it wasn't that long ago that paying a service to keep your lawnmowed or your house clean was unusual, and now it doesn't evenraise eyebrows.

All of which is why dog walkers/runners, doggy day-care centers,and professional poop scoopers are joining groomers, boardingkennels, pet sitters, and dog trainers— not to mention the mostimportant "service" job of all, the veterinarian— ascanine companions that are here to stay, offering help to those who need it.Of course, check references and the Better Business Bureau,and look for membership in trade associations while consideringwhom to trust with your dog— or to come onto your property.

When I Say, "In the Doghouse," It's a Compliment

Buying or building a doghouse used to be one of those things youdid when you got a dog. These days, although some dog owners keeptheir dogs outside some or all the time, their numbers are dwarfedby people for whom keeping dogs off the furniture doesn't even happen.

In my life, being in the doghouse has gone from being banished tothe barn—and even that eventually changed as the years passed—to enjoying the same environmental amenities human family membersenjoy, including comfy beds and climate control.

What this means is that the rules for what kind of housing is appropriatefor what kind of dog really don't work anymore. Great Daneslive in big cities and meet their friends at the dog parks for playtime,and tiny toy breeds ruff— I mean rough— it inside cozy ranchhouses, whether they're houses on real ranches (like mine) or the tracthome kind scattered throughout every community, the classic three-bedroom/two- bath with a yard the dog uses for a bathroom but notmuch more. If you're willing to make it work, you can. In fact, one ofthe writer/editors who works with me all the time has two giant-breed dogs— Scottish Deerhound and a Borzoi— in a San Francisco homethat's not much bigger than our kitchen. She makes it work becauseshe wants to, and so can you.

Dog Parks: Fun, But Not Always Friendly

One of the reasons having a large living space isn't so critical inkeeping a dog anymore is that many communities have becomemuch more dog-friendly. Cities large and small have responded todog owners' desire for off- leash play areas, and have even allowedbusinesses to let dogs dine on patios in the style long enjoyed inmany parts of Europe.

Dog parks, though, tend to be only as good as the people usingthem, and as a dog owner you need to look out for the safety ofyour dog as well as making sure he's not causing problems forother dogs. Yes, there are dog- park bullies!

The best way to check out a dog park is to go during off-peak hours. You want to see clean grounds and clear rules for pickupand good behavior. A double-gated entry, so dogs don't walk in ona leash (a known fight trigger), and, in the best parks, a separatearea for small dogs so they're not trampled or looked at as prey bylarge ones.

Whether or not children are allowed is a matter of controversy,but dog experts generally agree that it's safer for all involved ifthey are not. And of course, all dogs should be current on their vaccines(that means no puppies), well socialized, and nonaggressive.People should be paying attention to keeping their own dogs out oftrouble, not answering their email.

When they work, dog parks are great for getting pets the exercisethey need. When they don't work, they put people and pets atrisk of injury, perhaps even deadly ones. So go forth and unleash,but do so with common sense and caution.

My daughter, Mikkel, is a dog trainer and author, and she sees alot of dogs in her work. She loves Pugs, especially her dogs Willyand Bruce. They came from a breeder, and her other dog, Teddy,a Pomeranian, came from a shelter when he was ten years old.She knew to make sure before saying yes to either dog to understandtheir activity level, their appropriateness for life with children,and the health issues she'll be dealing with in their lives.

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