We’re often told that puppies will fit right in to our household, but is that really true? Is a puppy always the right choice to make when it comes to a multi-dog household? An emergency vet visit and an afternoon of puppy cuddles got me thinking about how adding a puppy into the mix isn’t always the best decision. Reading a blog post from the Dog Lady, Theo Stewart, got me thinking about how hard it can be for an older, established canine resident to accept a cute bundle of loveliness into their life.
A couple of weeks ago, the story of a tearful visit to the vet with a five-month old puppy who’d been attacked in a moment of excitement by an adult dog brought it home to me that puppies are not for every home. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an adult dog wounding a younger one. Sometimes, those wounds have been fatal. The story of a nine-month old mauled to death by an older dog is an unfortunate result of a situation that is not always the joyful experience it should be.
And to my right, the seven little wriggly dachshund x terrier pups remind me just how much at least one of my woofers would have hated these little fosterees. Tobby, my ancient Malinois, literally took to the streets when I had puppies here. Puppies were not for him. Randy Wobbly Tobby, so delighted when I turned up with hounds or arthritic old lady labradors, delighted to see poodles or bichons, happy as Larry when I brought home stinky old ladies, would have found it very tough to accept seven velvety beans. Not only did I have to manage all the puppy play and land-sharking, mopping up and random acts of chewing, I had to keep an eye on Tobby, who would slip off during a quiet moment, slide out through a badger hole in the fence and trot off up the road in search of a home where there were no puppies, thank you very much.
Whether it was the lack of quiet, the fact that puppies need constant reminders of what’s to play with and what’s not (including Wobbly Bob’s tail and arthritic legs), or the fact he got less attention, we can only speculate. The fact was that he was not a fan of puppies, not one bit.
And Amigo’s not arsed either. I mean he doesn’t mind telling puppies off, but they never take any notice of him, even when he’s snarling in their face. It’s like being told off by Richard Briers, to be fair, but even so, my gentle old guy and I sit with our feet up out of reach on the couch and try not to get cross about the ankle biters. Effel growled at the boxer puppies here last week. Even Heston had a grump. My four-year-old collie cross is usually so very happy to have a roll about with some bitey babies, but those puppies were not his cup of tea. What a change from 18 months ago when I had to manage the growls of Tobby and Amigo, and Heston’s joyful baby-sitting. Would I trust him with a puppy? Absolutely. Does he still enjoy puppies? Not like he did.
Tilly, so happy to play with puppy Heston (and the only time she ever played with another dog), spends all her time putting puppies in their place and grumbling if they disturb her peace. Heaven help any puppy that got near her food bowl. Separate meals for any puppy who spends a dinner time here. It’s not often I have to do that with the adults.
I mean, part of it is that puppies don’t learn easily, do they? Irascible, tenacious little beggars. I spent forty-eight hours watching Margot the nine-week-old boxer cross biting her brother Olly so hard that he was squealing and squealing. She played tug of war with his tail, chewed his ear, rode his back. So much for puppies learning from other dogs that their bite is hard or they are playing too rough. Little Ayan, here with me now, engages in some quite heavy-duty hazing of her brothers. Mama, the young labrador who had seven puppies at the shelter in the summer spent the last three weeks of their time here looking to escape from her babies having had more than enough of her offspring’s insistent attempts to play and mug her for milk. Little Nellie is at the same point with her six-week-old offspring. She literally couldn’t be any further away from them. Her job is done. Time to move on.
So, small puppies with their lack of social boundaries can be hard work for adult dogs, even if they are your offspring. And so many people choose a puppy because they have difficult dogs who won’t easily accept other adult dogs. We adopt a puppy because we think that our older antisocial dogs will adapt to them. One lady was telling me that she wanted one of the puppies I have here now because her elderly fox terrier won’t accept other dogs — she thinks the dog will ‘mother’ a puppy. We have many misconceptions about how puppies are accepted into family groups, but if the reason you want one is that your existing family pet is intolerant of adult dogs, is it really sensible to think that they’ll like a small puppy who might learn how to behave in ways that don’t annoy the older dog? And what if they don’t? Even if they do, they’re subjecting a dog to a life with an antisocial misery — is that going to make any creature in that house happy apart from the owners?
So why might a puppy not work with your own very social dog group? My dog group might not look like the most social of all families, but they put up with some shit. I’ve had over thirty dogs and pups stay the night here in the last year — some for longer than that. Tilly might grudgingly accept them through the door with a bit of a bark. Amigo might hide behind me. Heston might show us just how fluffy his tail looks and Tobby might have licked them to death, but the adult dogs were more easily accepted than the pups.
Part of it is just the energy levels. I mean, those puppies can be like crazed land sharks on speed.
Having a new crazy land shark about reminds me very much of the incident in The House at Pooh Corner, where Eeyore falls into the river.
“How did you fall in, Eeyore?” asked Rabbit, as he dried him with Piglet’s handkerchief.
“I didn’t,” said Eeyore.
“I was BOUNCED,” said Eeyore.
“Oo,” said Roo excitedly, “did somebody push you?”
“Somebody BOUNCED me. I was just thinking by the side of the river–thinking, if any of you know what that means–when I received a loud BOUNCE.”
“Oh, Eeyore!” said everybody.
“Are you sure you didn’t slip?” asked Rabbit wisely.
“Of course I slipped. If you’re standing on the slippery bank of a river, and somebody BOUNCES you loudly from behind, you slip. What did you think I did?”
Sadly, outside of children’s books, animals can’t talk or reason, and no post-BOUNCE analysis takes place when a younger animal BOUNCES a bigger one. Being bounced is not acceptable for dogs and they can’t fall back on words to sort it out. Eeyore was absolutely right to be grumpy that a bouncy creature should come into his corner of the world, especially when he had the whole of the forest to be bouncy in. That doesn’t have to be a puppy. My foster Effel is a fairly bouncy dog as it is, despite being seven years old. Tobby didn’t much like being bounced by him either. And the fact is that dogs, like Tiggers, are prone to bouncing where there are other dogs.
So a couple of weeks ago, when a man arrived home from work, setting off the excited bounces of his new five-month old pup, the resident adult dog didn’t much care for that excitement. The outcome were some fairly serious bites, from a dog who had never bitten before. Joking and Tigger comparisons aside, rambunctious, excited behaviour which is hard to control for a young dog can be precisely the kind of behaviour that other dogs take exception to. It’s going to happen at flashpoints where there’s high energy, and unlike Eeyore who begrudgingly accepts his bouncing, your older dog just might not.
But it’s not all about flashpoints and making sure your young dog is safe around your older ones. It can’t all be sorted with crates and playpens. Much of it is also about energy levels and frustration tolerance.
That was very much evident at a local dog play day. Two young dogs were left playing long after the others had run off their energy. One was nine months, the other eighteen months. Play, although it can continue into adulthood in dogs, doesn’t always. And play, like with other species, is often more exuberant and even more necessary when you’re young. Even the six-week-olds sleeping next to me know about toys already. In fact, one has woken up and is already mouthing a chew toy whilst his siblings sleep on.
The question to ask yourself is whether your adult dogs can handle a puppy who needs to play and wants to explore the world. A puppy who might bounce from time to time. Whilst you might feel goo-ey and parental when a puppy comes along, you know how tiresome the land-sharking can be if you’re not in the mood. You can’t choose when a puppy will decide to sink its teeth into your boots, or chew your laces, or trip you up. Your adult dog can’t choose when a puppy wil sink its teeth into their ears, or chew their tail, or run through their legs. And whilst you have all the love in the world for your new addition, which you understand is just learning the rules and needs a little help, who’s to say whether that’s evident to a dog or not, especially when, like Tobby and Amigo, you have told that puppy off over and over again about bouncing you into rivers. The difference is that as a human, you can manage your emotions. You can go out. You can find some space. You can invest in a puppy pen and supervise from a safe distance. Those aren’t choices your older dog can always make if owners have just blithely thought the older dog would accept a younger one.
For that reason, your adult dogs may prefer you adopt another adult dog rather than a puppy. An adult dog’s personality is already formed. Their behaviour patterns are more established. It’s easier to find a dog who matches your own adult dog’s size and energy levels. An adult dog may be the sensible choice. They are better at managing their behaviour and also managing the behaviour of others. It’s easy to see those ones who’d accept every single dog who ever crossed paths with them.
Another reason that people adopt puppies is to replace a dog who has died. Sometimes it’s for companionship for their own dog, or to stop separation anxiety. Sometimes it’s to fill the hole the old dog left in the family. It’s for this reason that many people feel like it would be very hard for an adult dog to join their family, as the family group has already been established and they think that their existing adult dogs won’t accept another adult. Or they think that dogs are more accepting of puppies, who will learn to fit into the group more easily. Whilst this can be true, there’s no reason to think that dogs like or accept puppies any more than they would like or accept an adult dog.
Sometimes, people feel that they don’t want to adopt an older dog because losing the last was very painful. They think they will have more years with a puppy, which may or may not be true. This morning, I read in one group of an eight-month-old wire-haired pointer that just dropped dead on a walk. No dog is immortal and space between losses doesn’t make it any easier, I’m afraid, even if you think it will. Some people like to stagger the ages of their dogs, so that they won’t end up with a geriatric group, or a group who need a lot of care all at the same time. There are many reasons why people choose to adopt a puppy instead of an adult dog.
But the sheer number of young dogs abandoned at the shelter tells you how hard youngsters can be. Over 80% of our dogs are less than 4 years of age. A very short socialisation window, a long adolescent period where you may not be able to exercise the dog physically at a level that is compatible with their energy levels for fear of muscular or skeletal problems, youthful exuberance, lack of time to train and work with your adolescent dog… and you have every reason why young dogs can be boisterous and bursting with energy. Are these things you are prepared to cope with? If you don’t have time and energy yourself, a puppy may not be the right choice for you or for your existing dogs.
Take Heston. He’s four and a half. He has so far enjoyed playing Uncle Heston, and he has very much enjoyed working with young puppies up until these last guys, although to be fair, he’s not been as relaxed as usual having a big bouncy boy with us in foster and following a few other changes in doggie personnel. He’s generally a great dog to introduce to young dogs. He self-limits well, never being rough or over-exuberant. He has great body language and communicates well with puppies. But even he seems to be getting tired of puppy play. I think sometimes of getting a younger dog to be his companion, since my canine family group is very much an ageing one. But would a puppy be the right choice? Certainly, my other two dogs would find it tough. Amigo is very deaf and not tolerant of puppies. Tilly is a dog who just likes to be undisturbed. Would a puppy work with this group? At the same time, am I happy with an ageing group?
The best answer has come from my foster dogs. Heston’s most favourite was a game young lady called Galaxy, a similar age and size to him, female, playful and fun. She was two at the time, to his three and a half. Although I would love a puppy, a dog like Galaxy would have been the best option, I have no doubt. She didn’t upset the oldies, didn’t have excessive training needs and came here with an energy level that suited all of us. Her personality was already established and because I could see the adult her, I knew what I was getting.
A Galaxy wouldn’t end up bouncing my oldies, wouldn’t give me as much of a runaround, wouldn’t have an energy level that caused my other dogs to pack their bags or to spend their days on guard in case someone comes to bite their legs or steal their bed. She’d also give my ageing group a bit of vitality without being a nutcase about it.
But if you want to introduce a puppy into the mix of your older pack, there are many benefits to that too. Dogs are social learners so having an old hand around the place will help with rambunctious younger dogs. At the shelter, we really don’t like for people to adopt a puppy as an only dog: these dogs are so often returned at the adolescent stage having had no real or meaningful interaction with older dogs. I can spot you a dog who’s lived out its life as an isolated, often unsupervised puppy a mile off. They have poor bite inhibition, low frustration tolerance, exuberant behaviour and often very coarse social skills with other dogs. Julio at the refuge is one such dog, having arrived after nine months of isolation. Maki is another. When you adopt a puppy and you don’t have another dog, you have a lot of work to do to keep it socialised. Although genes have a large role to play in how social your dog will be, the difference between a well-socialised husky and a poorly-socialised husky is bigger than the difference between a terrier and a spaniel. If you are picking up a puppy known for independence and pugnaciousness, like a terrier or bull breed, or a puppy bred for seeing off intruders, like a shepherd, it is your absolute responsibility to ensure they are socialised if they live on their own. And that is not always easy to do. Puppies like these really benefit from having supervised and mindful guidance with older dogs in the home.
Ultimately, whilst you may have been hoodwinked into the myth that older dogs will more readily accept a puppy, it is not true and it can lead you into very dangerous territory where your own dogs’ sense of security is destabilised. And just because your dog will accept a non-hormoney-smelling nine-week-old, can you predict safely what will happen when your puppy comes of age? Just because they know each other certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t fall out. Indeed, some of the worst fights (usually to the death, or to very serious injury) have happened between an older dog and a dog on the cusp of manhood or womanhood. That’s why, hearing of an SBT killed by a shepherd, seeing “nine months old” told me pretty much what had happened. Early sterilisation is not without its risks, and if you are doing so to keep the peace, you still might never avoid the problem completely.
You may also be under the illusion that puppies can easily learn not to chase cats when in fact, an older dog with a modicum of training and no reaction around cats at the shelter is a much better choice. Your young puppy only has to learn ONCE how fun it is to chase a cat (and how natural it feels!) and you have a young animal with very poor impulse control around your other treasured pets. Can you really supervise your puppy until it is at least six months old around running cats? And even if you can, can you stop the little green light of “that looks like most marvellous fun!” coming on in your puppy’s eyes? As an owner, you need to be absolutely on top of your game with that.
So if you’re thinking of picking up a little bundle of fluffy loveliness, think of your existing doggie dynamic. Think of how much time and training you can offer. Think of whether you have the time and skill to mould a dog whose behaviour is exemplary. Too often we assume that a dog is rambunctious or unmanageably energetic through some fault in their background, in their breed, in the parents. Yet I can show you littermates whose behaviours are so completely opposite that you would never believe they were siblings. You have to invest time to get the dog you want. If you don’t have the time, wait until you do. I will, in all probability, never have a puppy again. Having to mark out four months or so of being at home or finding puppy sitters, getting in all the socialisation and making sure I do everything I should… it’s exhausting. Plus, I could pick up ten dogs today from the shelter who come with far fewer needs and would settle in minutes, not days.
So, if you have an older family group of dogs or cats, don’t accept at face value all the times you’ll be told that a puppy will be accepted by the group. Whilst Tiggers might be acceptable to laid-back Winnie-the-Poohs or motherly Kangas, or super-social Rabbits, they certainly don’t make life easy if they keep bouncing the introverts by mistake. Sure you miss out on all the cute puppy moments, but puppies are only puppies for a very short period of time.
In the next post, I’ll tell you why you’ll never hear me use the phrase “Adopt, don’t shop!” and why I think there are times you might be better to shop for a puppy than adopt from a shelter. I know – controversial!