Marty Becker's Advice to Understanding 'Your Dog'

PHOTO: Dr. Marty Beckers "Your Dog" is shown here.PlayHatchette Book Group
WATCH Dr. Marty Becker on the Health of Dog's Teeth

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 out around humans for scraps. Eventually, the relationship grew closer; the animals best suited to hanging around were the ones who bred, and they started to change to suit the environment they were in. In time the dogs evolved into something like what's called a pariah dog— a medium-sized, brown, agile, short-haired dog with a long snout and erect ears. You can still find dogs like these all over the world, hanging out on the edges of human society. If dogs are left to breed as randomly as possible, the pariah dog is what they look like.

But we like a lot of different things in dogs, don't we? We like dogs in 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 for reasons of appearance, of course. For many years we counted on dogs to help us by herding our livestock, protecting our homes, pulling wagons or sleds, or helping us to hunt our dinners.

While a few kinds of dogs, mostly small, were developed solely as companions— and even they had some purpose as heating pads in the days long before central heating was invented— all the rest had jobs. Our ancestors no doubt liked their dogs, told them they were good dogs, and were even proud of the work they did and how well they did it. 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. Our dogs, as I always say, are "born retired." Despite all that work ethic and all those differences we've bred into them, they're all doing pretty much 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 you have to figure out if you can live with who they are and find things for them to do if they aren't the couch-potato type. If you don't, neither you nor your dog will be happy— and speaking as a veterinarian, I can tell you that what happens when a dog is bored and unhappy is going to be a bad thing for the dog. He'll either be fat and sick before his time (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 Unwanted Extreme 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'm suggesting some introspection before you get a dog so you have fewer problems and more love.

Define Me, Define My Dog

Who are you now, and who will you be in ten years? You might be surprised at how different those answers can be. While nothing in life's a sure thing, if you're going to spend the next ten years building a business empire, raising kids or retiring to a life of active leisure, you need to think about how this is going to affect your choice of a dog. Because in fact, there really is a dog for almost everyone who wants one, but dogs can be so different— even siblings— that you really need to put some 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 Idaho dairy. I grew up with big dogs, farm dogs and hunting dogs who worked as hard as we did with all the hard physical labor of country life. 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 overalls and 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 a beloved Golden Retriever, Shakira, otherwise known as She- Crazy for her boundless enthusiasm and her ability to play fetch until long after my arm wants to call it quits. But chances are she may be the last of the big dogs at our Almost Heaven Ranch. We've gone crazy for little dogs, starting with Quixote, the little canine cocktail you see on the cover of this book. Sure, I tell my poker buddies that he's my wife's dog, 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 pooch pastiche— along with my dog- trainerdaughter's little dogs, Willy and Bruce— I call them the GrandPugs— are where we are now. We're older, 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 I was smart enough to know it. Or my wife was, really.

Just don't anyone tell my poker buddies that my little dogs not only wear 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 a trail companion? A busy parent looking for a little help with babysitting and teaching kids responsibility? A young city hipster looking to impress others at the dog-friendly café? A person looking for a new hobby to go with a new dog? Are you slowing down— or do you want to? Are you living in 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 terms of time or exercise, do you have or can you afford to pay for a support system? Do you hate dog hair or are you good with picking the occasional strand off the butter or business suit without a flinch? Are you, personally, ready to take on the care of another living being, or is getting your own self fed and dressed about as much as you can handle? (I throw that one in for those Paris Hilton wannabes who forget that dogs aren't fashion statements or canine accoutrements, and they do need 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 to make a good match. Owning a dog is a lot like finding a mate, after all— 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 gotta have one, too"? Publicity, of course. A breed or mix turns up in a popular movie (like Disney's Dalmatian movies), on a hot advertisement (think the Taco Bell Chihuahua), or a long- running TV series (Frasier, whose cast included a Jack Russell Terrier) and suddenly you have a new "it" dog.

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

The second problem: When a breed becomes hot, it tends to encourage people who should not be breeding dogs at all to jump into the market. The resulting puppies are more likely to have health problems or be poorly socialized because of the corners cut getting puppies produced and sold before the 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 the lifetime 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 even more if you had a dog with you, doesn't mean a thing if you can't fit running into your schedule. And while there are lots of ways to save money on caring for your dog while not scrimping on the necessities, if you're really struggling to make ends meet you might need to put off owning a pet until things are going better for you.

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

Doggie Details

How much does it cost to keep a dog? Trade groups that track these things put the start up cost after adopting a dog (which doesn't account for the cost of purchase or adoption) at an average of about $1,000, with annual upkeep of about $700 a year. Bear in mind two things: first, that costs are often higher in urban areas and on both coasts, and less expensive in rural areas and in the Midwest and South; and second, that "average" includes people who frankly are barely spending enough on their dogs to keep from being 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) including parasite control (protecting your dog and your human family, too), along with some fun purchases that can also make your life easier and keep your home cleaner (fun? easy? you bet!), you can easily double those guesstimates—and still be hit with some big expenses that can be financially and emotionally devastating.

Is a dog worth it? That's a question only you can answer, but if you think you want to have a dog in your life, do be prepared to spend some money on your pet. A high-quality diet and good preventive care may 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-term strategy, not only for avoiding budget shock down the road but also for keeping your pet happier, healthier, and longer- lived.

Taking good care of your dog is a good investment, and it's a responsibility you owe to your dog. Cut the budget in other places if you must—your pet doesn't need a biker jacket or an expensive collar, and no dog was ever hurt by an owner who buys in bulk—but make sure you 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 the worst choice of all: choosing euthanasia over treatment for no reason 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, which is why I'm a firm advocate for pet health insurance. With so many good companies and such variety of choices available now, I've simply never been a bigger believer.

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

I'm not complaining. I'm just explaining why you need to think about what you'd do if you were facing a really big veterinary bill. Because you might need to, and your veterinarian can help only so much 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 a good plan for you down the road?

Pet health insurance is really more like car insurance than an HMO: Although companies such as Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) do offer wellness plans that may be helpful, especially if you're not good at saving or budgeting, the real benefit of the plans is that they cover a large part of the cost if something really bad happens— if your dog gets loose and is hit by a car, for example, or eats your underwear and needs surgery to clear the obstruction, or starts limping and it turns out to be cancer (which has never been more treatable, but treatment can be very expensive).

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

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

Check it out. You'll want to look at all the companies, talk to your veterinarian, read the reviews, and fiddle with the formulas online to see what company and choices best fit your pet. Preexisting conditions are never covered, but a great many other things 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 order to live with themselves—"We decided we didn't want him to suffer anymore,"which could be interpreted as "I can't afford to do what's best."

Time: No One Ever Has Enough of It

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

All dogs need exercise. Even little ones. Even old ones. Even ones who really don't seem to mind a sedentary lifestyle. They need exercise, just as you do, and for the same reasons. Exercise helps keep their heart healthy, helps keep their joints strong, helps keep their weight down. (Did you know that veterinarians say the majority— yes, more than half— of all dogs they see are overweight or obese? The statistics are 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 the main reasons why dogs misbehave. They need to burn energy. If you don't find something for them to do, they'll find something to do on their 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 like human treadmills; the ones for small dogs look more like hamster wheels), or get someone else to exercise your pet, the fact is that getting out 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 benefit from the activity as much as their dogs do. So much so that I wrote a book on the subject, Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing 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 an hour a day, all total, for feeding, cleaning up after, and a little play and exercise. For larger dogs— or high-energy small ones, such as most of the terriers— there simply isn't a high end on the amount of time you could spend with them. They'll happily jump up and be ready to go every time you pick up the leash or the car keys.

There are always imaginative ways to get your dog exercised without you exhausting yourself, of course. Fetch is always great for this, and swimming is another energy burner, especially when combined with fetch. Toys that require dogs to work for small food rewards also count, and are really well suited to those times when you simply can't keep 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 your own, you might consider volunteering at a shelter, fostering now and then for a rescue group, or walking a neighbor's dog. If you can make time for your 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's an ultramarathoner. The regular twenty-six-mile endurance run is nothing for him— his hobby is running in races of fifty to a hundred miles or even more. He has been a runner all his life but just started ultramarathoning in his fifties.

That sort of athletic endeavor requires a lot of training, so he figured he might as well start a business to take other people's dogs with him on training runs. Gina's three retrievers go out with him 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, the trend toward a wider array of pet services has been growing in recent years, in ways people never could have imagined.

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

What about paying someone to clean up your yard? If you can afford it and have better ways to spend your time, why not? After all, it wasn't that long ago that paying a service to keep your lawn mowed or your house clean was unusual, and now it doesn't even raise eyebrows.

All of which is why dog walkers/runners, doggy day-care centers, and professional poop scoopers are joining groomers, boarding kennels, pet sitters, and dog trainers— not to mention the most important "service" job of all, the veterinarian— as canine 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 considering whom 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 you did when you got a dog. These days, although some dog owners keep their dogs outside some or all the time, their numbers are dwarfed by people for whom keeping dogs off the furniture doesn't even happen.

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

What this means is that the rules for what kind of housing is appropriate for what kind of dog really don't work anymore. Great Danes live in big cities and meet their friends at the dog parks for playtime, and tiny toy breeds ruff— I mean rough— it inside cozy ranch houses, whether they're houses on real ranches (like mine) or the tract home kind scattered throughout every community, the classic three- bedroom/two- bath with a yard the dog uses for a bathroom but not much more. If you're willing to make it work, you can. In fact, one of the writer/editors who works with me all the time has two giant- breed dogs— Scottish Deerhound and a Borzoi— in a San Francisco home that's not much bigger than our kitchen. She makes it work because she 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 in keeping a dog anymore is that many communities have become much more dog-friendly. Cities large and small have responded to dog owners' desire for off- leash play areas, and have even allowed businesses to let dogs dine on patios in the style long enjoyed in many parts of Europe.

Dog parks, though, tend to be only as good as the people using them, and as a dog owner you need to look out for the safety of your dog as well as making sure he's not causing problems for other 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 pickup and good behavior. A double-gated entry, so dogs don't walk in on a leash (a known fight trigger), and, in the best parks, a separate area for small dogs so they're not trampled or looked at as prey by large ones.

Whether or not children are allowed is a matter of controversy, but dog experts generally agree that it's safer for all involved if they 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 of trouble, not answering their email.

When they work, dog parks are great for getting pets the exercise they need. When they don't work, they put people and pets at risk 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 a lot of dogs in her work. She loves Pugs, especially her dogs Willy and 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 understand their activity level, their appropriateness for life with children, and the health issues she'll be dealing with in their lives.