Last updated: August 9, 2021. Originally published: March 13, 2014
Flashback to twenty years ago. Incubus’s ridiculously overplayed new song “Drive” is on the radio. My dad is chauffeuring me to the humane society, and I’m in the backseat trying not to hyperventilate.
Three days earlier, I adopted my first puppy. Okay, technically, my dad adopted her. Something about me being a minor. Whatever. I paid for her. I invested my money and my years of learning and planning and working and saving and dreaming. She was mine.
We couldn’t take her home yet; she had to be spayed first. We could come back to get her in five days. Sure. Fine. No problem. I’ll just leave my new baby here and face down the LONGEST FIVE DAYS OF MY EXISTENCE.
Three excruciating days later, Christmas came early. The shelter called. Good news/bad news! Puppy has kennel cough. We put her on some meds. Nothing to worry about, but we don’t want to put her through surgery like this. Come get her now and bring her back to be spayed when she’s feeling better.
We pick her up and load her into the minivan. And then, this drugged-up pup drunkenly wobbles out of her carrier to curl up in my lap. Greatest moment of my pre-teenage life.
We begin the long trip home, and “Drive” starts up on the radio again.
To this day, Drive is my favorite song. Every time I hear it I am right back in that moment. Awash in the amber light of late afternoon, my hopes and dreams asleep in my arms, our whole lives laid out ahead of us.
So you’re thinking of adopting a dog!
Once you get bit by the gotta-get-a-dog bug, there is a hell of a lot to think about. A lot of choices to make, a lot of prep work to be done. Where to start?
You can start here, with an introduction to a fundamental truth of pet dog ownership. This concept can make the difference between a great dog adoption experience and a bad one.
Often, when people get a dog and have a really rough go of it, it’s because they didn’t take into consideration what I’m about to tell you.
To begin, we have to go back to that heartwarming moment with my puppy, Friday. Because that’s the kind of anecdote that makes dog ownership so appealing. Aww, how cute! Little Jake worked so hard to get a puppy! The puppy loves him already! She’s so grateful to be rescued! They’re gonna grow up together and be best friends and everything is beautiful!
I mean, we literally rode off into the sunset together. It doesn’t get more storybook than that. What happened next? Happily ever after, right?
Hahahaha. No. Not quite.
I’ve written about the early days with this puppy before. You can read about that here. Suffice it to say it was not all rainbows and unicorns.
After a week of being bitten, scratched, peed on, and ignored by my precious baby, I was seriously disillusioned with the whole puppy thing.
She was cute, but she was a pain in the ass. There was very little affection between us, and a whole lot of frustration. She didn’t love me. I didn’t love her.
These days, I get a lot of emails from people in the exact same situation. “I’ve had my new dog for a week. He doesn’t seem to like me and I don’t love him. Am I a horrible person?”
What these people, and my younger self, failed to realize is that getting a dog is only the beginning of the adoption process. You still have to build the relationship.
Here, I’ll highlight that in case you missed it:
The most important thing to know before you adopt a dog
Getting a dog is only the beginning of the adoption process. You have to build a relationship.
Before we get a dog, a lot of us dream about the joy and love it will bring to our lives… without visualizing the hard work and time it takes to get to that stuff.
You and your new dog will be strangers to each other. No matter how well the meet-and-greet at the shelter goes, there will be an awkward period of time at home where you have to get to know each other and figure out how to live together.
Some say that adopting a dog is kind of like bringing home your new human baby. But there is at least one major difference – you’re not biologically programmed to love your dog.
So I’m just gonna put this out there in advance: you’re forgiven if you don’t fall madly in love with this dog before the first weekend is over.
Think of this process as being more like making a new friend. You wouldn’t expect to meet someone and be BFFs on day one. Getting to know, love, and trust someone takes time and effort.
With open arms and open eyes: this is the beginning of a journey
And journeys are not always fun.
Even the most worthwhile adventures have moments that absolutely suck. The car breaks down on a sizzling desert highway in the middle of your epic road trip. You have to stand in line in the rain for two hours before the concert with your favorite band starts. Your trusty pack mule Frederick gets sick and you have to carry all the gold prospecting supplies yourself.
It takes a lot of work to successfully integrate a dog into your life. The early days are a time of major change and disruption. Be prepared for sleep deprivation and self-doubt.
Why self-doubt? Because you’ll be doing a lot of the chores of dog ownership -house training, cleaning, supervising, vet visiting, keeping the resident cat from staging a mutiny, etc- before you and Fido develop a bond.
You might start to wonder why you’re doing all this work for a critter who doesn’t seem to appreciate it.
But the more work you put in up front, the better it will be later. Want an unbreakable, Timmy-and-Lassie bond with your dog? You gotta earn it, sucka. It can take months for a bond to form. Take the time to earn your dog’s trust. Make him feel safe in his new home. Let him decompress from the stressful adoption experience.
Go into this adventure with the intention of creating and developing a friendship.
Will you be there?
Drive turned out to be a good theme song for my relationship with Friday. “Whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll be there. Doo doo doo.” This became my battle cry.
(It was sheer dumb luck that I was given such an inspirational song to associate with the little demon spawn. Who knows what would have happened if the tune on repeat that day had been a downer like “The Hardest Thing” or something)
I pushed through the suck. No matter how difficult Friday was being, I kept showing up, day after day. I threw out the expectations of a perfect puppy who would adore me and do everything I said, and learned to appreciate the real live puppy I ended up with. I learned to be patient. Friday learned not to bite so hard.
And things got better. I think it was about a month before the joyful moments outnumbered the frustrating ones.
Then Friday became a teenager. And THAT was whole new level of pain-in-the-ass.
But I knew we would be okay. Friday was a little jerk, but she was MY little jerk, dammit. We would get through this together.
When Friday turned one year old, we invited some friends over to play games and eat cake. It was as much a celebration of “holy crap, we made it ten whole months without killing each other!” as it was a celebration of her birthday.
Somewhere, there exists a photo taken the exact moment I realized I loved my dog. Friday and I are sitting at a table in front of a bone-shaped birthday cake with a single candle. I have my arm around her, and she’s actually leaning into me, accepting the embrace. I have this stupid little half grin on my face. I’m thinking about what a cool dog my demon puppy grew up to be, and how glad I am that we weathered all the bad moments to get to this amazing one.
If I could give potential dog adopters only one piece of knowledge, it’s this. Getting a dog means building a relationship.
When you are prepared to settle in for the long road ahead, it’s easier to ride out the rough patches. And it’s gonna be a wild ride. Hold tight and bring your sense of humor.