Being a first-time dog owner is both exciting and stressful, and it can be tough to care for your new companion while striving to build a lifelong bond.
To gain some practical advice, we spoke with Meghan D’Arcy, CTC, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant based in Toronto, Canada. Here's what she had to say about some common first-time dog owner mistakes.
While it may be the last thing you want to hear after welcoming home your four-legged friend, it is possible to coddle them too much. Dogs are pack animals. That means they are going to need a leader — and that leader is you. You need to be stern when training commands and laying out ground rules to let your dog know you’re the boss, and help them learn in the easiest, most efficient way possible.
Starting obedience classes as early as possible helps prevent your dog from developing bad habits like food aggression, human aggression, dog aggression, or any other types of behavioral issues. Dog training should be a preventative tool, not just a path to solve issues after they crop up.
When it comes to dogs, consistency is key, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). For instance, allowing your dog to sleep on the sofa sometimes, then banning them from furniture other times only causes confusion. The same rule applies if you allow them to jump on you but not on guests. Establish and share rules for your dog and make sure everyone enforces them.
An improperly fitted harness can cause chafing, choking, or changes in your dog’s gait. "Fit your dog’s harness like sports equipment — it needs to be tight enough to distribute the dog’s weight evenly, prevent rubbing, and ensure they don’t slip off," says D’Arcy.
Though even the best-fitting harness can’t always prevent your dog from escaping, especially if they become extremely excited or upset. D’Arcy’s recommendation is to use a safety strap to connect the harness to a properly-fitted collar, which acts as a back-up in case your dog does slips out of their harness.
"Crating is an excellent skill for dogs to learn, especially for travel or vet and groomer visits,” explains D’Arcy.
Just know that takes time for dogs to feel comfortable spending long periods of time in their crate. "After bringing a new dog home, it’s best to keep absences brief initially, and work up to longer absences as necessary.”
However, if your dog is destructive when you're away from home, don't assume that crating them is a solution.
"If your dog howls or barks while in their crate, or destroys their crate bedding, your dog may be experiencing confinement-related stress and developing negative associations with being alone," explains D’Arcy.
In an effort to protect dogs from disease, some pet owners seclude their pups. However, dogs require friendly interaction with people, dogs, and other animals, so it’s important to socialize your dog early. This can help you avoid issues with aggression, fear, and anxiety down the road.
Brushing up on your understanding of a dog's body language is important in helping you prevent and avoid dangerous situations. For instance, even a tail wag — which we usually associate with happiness — can be a sign of aggression. And behaviors like growling can be signs of discomfort or fear. A good rule of thumb? "The simple absence of happy body language is usually the first cue to us humans that the dog isn’t enjoying things or would like to get away from something that’s going on," says D’Arcy.
Raising dogs is immensely enjoyable, but it can get complicated. Never hesitate to ask for advice when you need it. Your veterinarian, dog trainer, and behavioral specialists are there to help.