Is it time to get a dog?

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Trying to decide whether to take the plunge and pick up a puppy?

Time to get a dog?

By Amy Baskin TC MEDIA I never had a dog growing up – just two quiet gerbils. So when my husband, Jack, and I had kids, getting a dog seemed like an impossible proposition. At age three, our youngest child was diagnosed with autism. Trying to get help and coping with her behaviours consumed all of our time, energy and emotions. We thought we had no room in our lives for a pet. But we couldn't help but notice how our girls smiled and laughed when we visited friends with dogs. So we started dropping into our local humane society. On one visit, while the other canines barked wildly, one lay quietly with her paws crossed. Her name was Spike. She was a one-year-old black hound-shepherd mix. After that, we visited her several more times. Then, despite our countless reasons for remaining dogless, we decided to take Spike home with us. We changed her name to Jemma, and Jemma changed our lives.   For more than 16 years, Jemma was part of our family. An ever-present "sister," she helped my girls play together. I 
remember their laughter as they dressed Jemma in a tutu and tiara. On weekends, we would leave the laundry to go hiking in the woods at our off-leash park. On weekdays, Jemma would curl up  under my desk in my home office and keep me company as I worked, then become my walking buddy at lunchtime. Ask any dog owner and you'll hear stories of how their pets keep them happy and healthy. "We know from research that pets can help decrease blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels," says Tiffany Durzi, a doctor of veterinary medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont. "A dog can also decrease stress levels and feelings of loneliness. Dogs can increase your opportunities to make new friends."   That was Frances Gingras's experience. After she got married and moved from Toronto to a small village north of Ottawa, her in-laws gave her and her husband a springer spaniel named Bruny. Having never been a dog owner before, she was nervous. But Bruny turned out to be a lifesaver. "She became my best friend," says Frances. "I brought her everywhere." Frances and her husband, Alain, took Bruny inline skating, camping and even snowshoeing. They also got to know their next-door neighbours when their two dogs became playmates.

  If you've ever thought of getting your family a furry friend, it might be time to break free of the excuses. Here's why.     "All of our friends complain about the cost." Shelling out for certain breeds of dogs can add up. In order to save up for a mini goldendoodle, Kate Hebdon's kids (then ages eight and 11) pooled their birthday and Christmas cash, and collected loose change around the house. "They came up with $500," says Kate. "Contributing helped them in their new role of becoming ‘parents' to a dog." Adopting from a local humane society can be a more affordable option, but be prepared to undergo a thorough adoption process.    Some pet owners mistakenly try to save money by avoiding regular visits to the vet. "Having an annual pet health exam with vaccines [which costs about $120] saves you money in the long run," says Durzi. "For example, if your dog is overweight, it's prone to heart disease and diabetes. By adjusting your dog's food, the vet can help keep your dog healthy and ward off breed-specific diseases."     Frances asked her vet to recommend a healthy brand of food for her dog. "We spent a little bit more to get really good dog food," she says. "We were preventive."  Buying pet health insurance may also be helpful for some dog owners, says Durzi. Ask your vet for advice.   "Don't dogs need a lot of space?"  Kate worried that her postage-stamp-sized Toronto backyard wouldn't suit a dog's needs, but since she walks her dog, Pyper, before and after work, her yard size doesn't matter that much.   Even if you live in an apartment, there's a dog for you. "Some breeds are more suitable for small spaces," says Durzi. "Look at the size and energy level of the dog. Jack Russells are small but have very high energy levels."    "Is it ok to leave a dog home alone?"  "An adult dog can absolutely be alone for an eight-hour workday," says Durzi. To keep your pet busy, leave him a toy, such as a Kong (a rubber dog toy) stuffed with frozen yogurt or peanut butter. Durzi also suggests opening curtains so your pet can look outside, and turning on the radio or TV for him. When you get home, your dog will need a walk and time to socialize, she says.     For a younger dog, ask a friend or neighbour to let him out in the yard midday. When Kate's daughter Sarah comes home for lunch on school days, she lets Pyper out. "Paying for a professional dog walker ordoggy day care a few times per week is also a good option," says Lisa Davies, a dog trainer in Maple Ridge, B.C. At day care, dogs play together all day, with a break for naptime. "All that activity tires them out for the next day too," she says. To find good care, look online, visit doggy day-care centres, or ask your vet or trainer for recommendations.   "We have places to go. A dog will tie us down!" Having a network of family and friends to dogsit can help you indulge your travel bug. When Frances and her husband went to France for two weeks, her in-laws cared for Bruny. If you don't have pet-loving people you trust nearby, Davies suggests networking with dog owners at obedience classes and dog parks. You may meet others who are interested in trading care on vacations.   Or you could take your hound on holiday with you. "They make the trip so much more enjoyable," says Davies, who often travels with her three dogs. "Because of them, we meet lots of locals. And we love visiting dog parks and beaches." Almost all major hotel chains now offer pet-friendly accommodations. Some even welcome furry family members with a bag of treats and their own dog beds. ( to find pet-welcoming accommodations.) If you'd like to sightsee or visit a museum for part of your trip, Davies suggests booking your dog into a local day care for the day.    "I know absolutely nothing about dogs." "Before getting one, I didn't know how to be around a dog," says Frances. Since Bruny had been trained to respond to commands in French, Frances had an extra challenge. "If I asked her to sit or come or stop in English, she'd do the opposite." Eventually, Alain trained her and the dog in French together. "Signing up for puppy socialization or dog obedience classes can help you bond," says Davies.   Enjoying activities together also helps you connect with your pooch. Frances says, "Every day we spent time together: jogging, walking or cycling. I used to be fearful, but now I approach people with dogs. Bruny made a dog lover out of me."   Still not sure if you're ready for a dog? As Kate says, "We sort of plunged in and thought we would just figure it out. Pyper helps our family be cohesive. It's not just about us as individuals anymore. It's about us collectively doing what is right for our dog. We all fell in love with her."

  Dreaming of a dog? Where to start: Get advice: Talk to dog-owning friends. And make an appointment 
with a vet to find out about different breeds and their needs. Go online: Investigate what breeds best fit with your family and lifestyle at Practise: Take a friend's dog for a walk or an overnight stay. Or volunteer as a walker for your local humane society. 

Organizations: Ontario Veterinary College

Geographic location: Toronto, Guelph, Ottawa Maple Ridge

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