When Am I Considered an ‘Experienced’ Dog Owner?
Wouldn't it be great if dogs (and people!) came with instruction booklets? A customized guide that would tell you everything your dog is thinking or feeling, and outlining step-by-step how to give her the best life. I wish! The reality is that we dog parents are pretty much left to figure this stuff out on our own. How to tell if our dog is happy, hungry, upset, or bored. And what to do about it.
With this in mind, some dog breeds may be more of a challenge for a first-time dog owner than others. For example, I come from a family that has owned and worked alongside dogs for generations, including many kinds of herding and hound breeds. But when I got my first dog, a Beauceron, a breed known for their high energy and intense intelligence, I wasn't quite prepared for the two to three walks a day he required in addition to the daily hours providing activities that stimulated his brain. I often felt he was smarter than me … and he definitely had more energy than I did after a long day of work. It was quite the adjustment period and I found myself humbled daily for quite a while. Years later, and with much more experience under my belt, I don't know that I would ever own that breed again despite how very much I loved my dog.
Although a dog's breed can't account entirely for his behavior, it is certainly an important factor. For instance, herding dogs were bred to have stamina and often require a "job" to be happy. Terrier breeds were bred to be on high alert and hunt vermin. And hounds? Well, hounds were bred to assist in hunting or tracking, but individual hound breeds are as different as they come.
Everyone says they want a smart dog, or an active dog, or a dog that they can take everywhere. But the reality is a smart, active dog who is bored or unfulfilled can create myriad issues inside and outside your home. To add to this, a dog's genetic history, early life experiences, health, and individual personality create a unique mystery you must unravel to create a great relationship with them.
Whatever the reason for a dog's behavior, some dogs will do better with owners who are more experienced in handling a variety of dogs, breeds, and personality traits. These dogs are often described as "best for an experienced owner" or "not for first-time dog owners."
If you're considering adopting a dog who's been identified this way, how can you tell if you qualify as "experienced"?
There's no easy definition of an "experienced" dog owner, but there are some important factors a potential dog owner should consider. While this is not an exhaustive list, our canine experts agree that these are the experiences you should have under your belt if you want a dog that would benefit from a more skilled owner.
6 Things That Could Make You An Experienced Dog Owner
1. You’ve owned (as an adult) at least two or three dogs of different breeds.
There's no exact number of dogs that really makes you "experienced," but our experts agree you need to have owned, as an adult, more than one dog and should have experience with more than one breed. For example, owning a few golden retrievers in your childhood doesn't prepare you to own a Belgian Malinois. Knowing that dogs are all individuals, and breed differences can vary significantly, makes all the difference in your abiliy to parent a more challenging pup.
"Experienced dog owners are usually better prepared to deal with challenges such as health issues and behavioral problems. If you've had several dogs, the odds are that at least one of your previous dogs was less than perfect. So you've probably learned a little about how to deal with whatever problems came up," says Irith Bloom CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, CDBC, CSAT, KPA CTP, VSPDT, CBATI, VSDTA Faculty, DWA Faculty, owner of The Sophisticated Dog, LLC.
2. You can identify and understand dog behavior, communication, and body language.
To be "experienced" you should have a thorough understanding of canine communication and body language and know the basic sciences behind why dogs do what they do—including reading meta signals, avoidance behaviors, and displacement behaviors. It does sound a little technical … because it is. There's a lot more to dog communication than just understanding when your dog needs to go potty or wants to play.
Any dog owner should have a basic understanding of these things, but breeds that require an "experienced" owner need someone who can read important and subtle signals in order to prevent issues with other dogs and creatures. This could include identifying behaviors that may be considered prey-driven, protective, or obsessive (to name just a few).
"Someone with experience knows what normal dog behavior looks like and doesn't expect a dog to be a human in a fur coat," says Bloom, who's also a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board.
3. You are skilled in using positive reinforcement and understand how dogs learn.
Every experienced dog owner should understand their dog isn't born understanding the human world. They know how to teach their dog important life skills, which involves more than just teaching a dog to "sit" or to "high five." Going to a few puppy training classes over the years doesn't suffice, either.
You should have attended multiple levels of training classes throughout a dog's life, from puppy kindergarten to basic obedience and beyond. You should know how to address puppy socialization, how to teach life skills, and how to utilize positive reinforcement and learning theories to create a confident, well-adjusted canine. And, you don't wait until there's a problem to do something. Experience means you know to avoid common mistakes and do what you can to prevent common behavioral concerns such as reactivity or fearfulness.
"So how do you know if you are experienced in positive reinforcement? Ask yourself: Do I know how to use positive reinforcement to keep my dog from jumping on guests? What if he's barking at the postal worker?" Bloom says. "Note that 'yelling at the dog' and 'pulling the dog away' are not positive reinforcement solutions. If you aren't sure how to tackle these situations using treats, play, and kindness, [experienced owners] seek out training advice from a certified professional," she says.
4. You understand how to adjust your home and expectations to fit a specific dog’s needs.
We call this management. In short, management means preparing, organizing, and controlling situations and things your dog will encounter to prevent unwanted behaviors or challenging situations your dog may not be able to handle. Management is often the first solution given by professional dog trainers and behavior specialists when dog owners ask questions that start with "How do I prevent my dog from …".
An experienced dog owner will recognize if their dog is not well-suited for trips to the dog park, or may not come when called off-leash, or won't enjoy the raucousness of small children. Instead of assuming their dog needs more training, or is just a problem child, they adjust their lifestyle, home environment, daily routines, and enrichment and activities to the benefit of the dog.
"I know when I am working with an experienced dog owner when they take responsibility for a dog's behavior. They may still need help with the 'what to do about it' part, but they understand that there is work ahead, progress will take time, and continued environmental management is often necessary," says Amelia Wieber, CPDT-KA, CCBC, owner of Caring Behavior Animal Behavior Consulting in Frederick, Col., also a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board.
5. You know how to provide quality mental and physical enrichment that’s specific to your dog.
Once you take into account your dog's age, genetics, health, breed traits, and personality, you need to be able to apply that knowledge to planning your dog's activities and enrichment. For instance, many herding dog breeds need extensive daily exercise that includes serious mental stimulation. While many hound breeds just aren't well-suited for long jogs or hiking off leash, they still need daily chances to use their senses. Exercise and enrichment aren't one-size-fits-all for every dog. An experienced owner knows how to create great experiences for their dog, based on their individual dog's needs.
"When my husband and I thought about getting our dog we had considered how much time we were going to be able to dedicate to training but also mental stimulation and daily activities," says Madison Beyer of Lincoln, Neb., who owns an Australian cattle dog. "Our dog ended up inspiring us to get into kayaking, hiking, and biking simply because we needed to find ways to keep him active and mentally stimulated," she says.
6. You understand dogs are long-term family members.
Experienced dog owners know that a dog is a family member that requires time and energy for many years to come, and—depending on the breed—that time and energy may be more intense. For example, toy breeds can live upwards of 12 years and once they are in their senior years they will require more dental care, special diets, and more attention to grooming. Experienced dog owners are prepared for the costs associated with owning a dog including veterinary care, training, enrichment activities, diet, and grooming and understand those expenses may fluctuate from year to year.
"Before adopting any dog, ask yourself the following: If the dog you adopt isn't right for your family, what will you do? You may think you can simply give up a dog if the dog doesn't suit your needs, but it's often challenging (or even impossible) to find a new home for a dog. This is especially true if the dog has serious behavior issues. Experienced pet owners are usually better prepared to deal with challenges, for the life of the dog," Bloom says.
No dog comes to your home perfectly suited for your life. It takes very careful planning, commitment, energy, and money to create a living environment well-suited for a new furry family member—especially for a pet who requires more practice and know-how. You may find that consulting with a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behavior consultant is your best bet to finding a breed and dog well-matched to your life.