I'm not a dog expert--I’m a dog-parent who knows a lot more now about dogs than when I started learning (which was basically the day I adopted Chance).
I didn't intend it to be that way. I had done months of research leading up to actually getting the squirming little bundle of shedding hair and endless poop. But the day I brought Chance home, I realized how woefully unprepared I was.
That night, I learned two important things:
- You can enter any question you have into Google and you will get some sort of answer. "How often does my dog have to pee?" "When should I feed my dog?" "Why won't my dog stop chewing on his feet?" It's really great because you get the information AND the comforting feeling that you're not the only with this many questions.
- There is no straightforward, nitty-gritty, I-need-to-read-this-on-my-iPad-in-one-hour manual for a dog. You'd think there would be. There was one for my DSLR camera, my microwave, even my hair dryer (plug in, turn on)…but I couldn’t find one for a dog. At least I couldn't with one eye on my brand-new puppy to see if he was about to pee on the floor.
So that's what I'm going to try to do here. This guide is NOT intended to replace expert advice, classes, or any of that other stuff. PLEASE DEDICATE AT LEAST THE NEXT WEEK OF YOUR LIFE TO RESEARCH. But hopefully this will get you through the first few days, and then some. I'll also link to some resources that I found invaluable—products I swear by, and actual professionals whose advice I trust. Here we go…
The First Hour
(A note on terms: For the purposes of this guide, I'm calling your new dog "Puppy" whether he's an actual puppy or a full-grown dog. Some of this information is more skewed towards younger dogs simply because Chance was four months old when I adopted him, but I've tried to be mindful of that bias.)
You were going to Ralph's for lemons and a bottle of wine, right? But there was this animal rescue booth right in front and THEY HAD PUPPIES. And there was this one that just looked right into your soul. And that volunteer holding it saw that look on your face and the next thing you knew YOU were holding it, and it was licking your chin and you knew you couldn't just LEAVE it there.
So you were relieved of an adoption fee, handed a pile of papers (hopefully Puppy came with a collar and leash, Chance didn't), and sent on your way. Now Puppy is in your backseat (put him in the backseat, by the way, more on that later)--what do you do first? Put those papers in a safe place (you're gonna need those), aaaannnd....
Go to a Pet Store for Supplies!
Find the nearest pet store. Do not go home first. Ideally you're right near a Centinela Feed & Pet Supplies (greater Los Angeles area only)--it's large enough that it has everything you'll need and the prices aren't awful. If you’re not in Los Angeles, do a quick Google search for any nearby discount pet or feed supply stores—they’re usually a much better deal than the larger chains. But if the only thing nearby is PetSmart or Petco or something, that'll do. You can get everything way cheaper online, but you need a bunch of stuff RIGHT NOW.
"Why can't I just go into the Ralph's THAT I'M RIGHT IN FRONT OF and buy supplies?" you may be asking. Short answer--the food and toys they sell are low-quality and/or overpriced. Go to a pet store.
You can bring Puppy in, so don't leave him in the car. Get a cart, get set, GO!
Your New Dog Shopping List
1. A crate!
You're looking for one that is just big enough for Puppy to stand up, turn around, and lie down in. If Puppy is really young, get a little bit bigger one so you don't need to upgrade two weeks from now. You can get the all-plastic-with-metal-door version, but I prefer the ones that are all metal bars for ventilation and easy cleaning. This is where Puppy will be spending a lot of time, so don't freak out that it's expensive.
2. A crate pad.
You will want to get a crate pad--this is like a flat pillow that fits inside the crate. (If you're like me, you'll also add a blankie for cuddling.) Also, you will need a blanket or a towel to cover the crate completely at night--if you want to pick up a crate cover made to fit whatever you're buying, get that too. But you can get by with an old bedsheet or something. (I wouldn't get a dog bed right away--you can get them for MUCH cheaper elsewhere, and you're probably gonna want to confine Puppy to his crate for much of the time during his first few days home. I’ll include a link at the end of this chapter to my blog post on where to shop for very cheap pet supplies.)
3. Dog food.
Hopefully the rescue gave you some of whatever he's been eating (they probably didn't) or at least told you what he's been eating (they probably didn't) so you can get some more of that to start. You're going to want to slowly transition him to whatever food you want to feed him by blending his old stuff and new stuff gradually, over a few days. If you have no idea what he was eating before, don't panic. You're gonna buy something just to get you through the next week. (But do be prepared for Puppy to have an upset tummy--abruptly changing food can be rough on dogs.)
What to feed your dog is a hotly debated subject. There are so many different ideas about the best diet for dogs that you'll need to spend a lot of time thinking about your lifestyle, your dog's needs, your budget, etc. to determine the best option for you. For now....here are my instructions BASED ON MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE to help you buy a starter food.
Get a small bag of dry kibble from one of the higher-end manufacturers. That means no Purina. You will eventually be spending a ton of time at DogFoodAdvisor.com, but for right now pick a brand off this list for adults or this list for puppies. Make sure it's made in the United States--meat from livestock raised in China can be really bad for Puppy.
You're looking for something that's "grain-free" (should advertise that on the bag somewhere)--again, whether you NEED to feed Puppy a grain-free diet is hotly debated. But I figure it can't hurt to start you there. You want the first two or three ingredients listed to be meats. If Puppy is under a year old, you MUST buy something that is specifically FOR puppies. If he's older, you can get the regular stuff for grown-up dogs.
(A note on special needs: You'll see options for "small breeds" and "large breeds." Usually it's talking about kibble size--you don't want to feed a Chihuahua kibble that's sized for a Great Dane. So keep your eyes peeled for those if Puppy is exceptionally small or exceptionally large. If Puppy is, in fact, a very young large breed, you got yourself into something and you should go read this right now.)
Once you've decided which kibble to get, get a can of soft dog food that corresponds with whatever you purchased. For example, if you decided to buy Wellness Core Puppy Formula dry kibble, buy a can of Wellness Core Puppy Formula wet canned food. This is in case Puppy decides for whatever reason he does not like kibble--if he doesn't, try scooping a bit of wet food on top of the kibble (this is called "topping"), or alternatively just feed him a bowl of the wet food. Wet food is way more expensive, perishable, and messier than kibble so try the kibble first.
ALTERNATIVELY—if you simply cannot handle picking ANY dog food right now, and you KNOW your dog is old enough to be eating solid food, you can feed him small portions of boiled skinless chicken breast and white rice. YES, it has to be those things. NO, you cannot just buy some KFC. Anything but skinless chicken breast and WHITE rice is too hard to digest. It’s called a “bland diet,” if you wanna Google it. But that is the only safe people food you can feed right now, and only for a few days.
4. A food bowl and a water bowl.
You're going to have to look into whether you want to get Puppy a raised food/water bowl situation. Some say it's better and some say it's worse than feeding on the ground. For right now, just get two stainless steel (cheap and easiest to disinfect) bowls--one for food, one for water--and put them on the ground. Take a look at the serving size of the kibble you'll be feeding and make sure you get one that's big enough for that.
I suggest you get one bag of "training treats," one bag of a bigger "reward" treat, and a box of Greenies to start. I recommend Zuke's Mini Naturals (Chance likes Roasted Chicken) for "training treats," which are tiny little treat pieces that you can use liberally during training. You obviously don't want to give Puppy an entire cookie every time he successfully sits. So Zuke's are great to start--they're only 3 calories each. Then get something more substantial as a special reward treat, maybe a jerky of some kind, like BIXBI Skin and Coat Jerky Treats. I like jerky because it takes Chance a bit longer to chew. And finally, I'm a total devotee of Greenies--everyone I talked to recommended them for dental health, and Chance LOVES them. They're high in calories though, so he only gets one per day.
Do not purchase rawhide, bone, or antler chews!!!! There will probably be an entire aisle dedicated to these and you'll be like, "DUH everyone knows dogs love bones!" But rawhide treats are not digestible and can cause intestinal blockage, bones can splinter and get stuck in Puppy's throat, and antlers can break teeth. Like the whole diet issue, there is a lot of debate about whether it's ok or not to give your dog rawhide, bone, or antlers. So, do some research and talk to your vet first to decide which is right for you--just don't buy any right now.
You'd think this would be the purely fun part. Hahahahahahahahaha. If you haven't caught on yet--ABSOLUTELY EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR DOG'S LIFE IS AND WILL BE A COMPLETE MINEFIELD. You can't just get any toy. Again--do your research, talk to your vet, blah blah blah. For now, let me just give you a couple starter suggestions.
If Puppy is young (under 8 months), he is probably still teething, so you're gonna want plenty of chewing alternatives to your shoes. Nylabone makes the cutest Puppy Starter Kit, and Chance still chews on the bacon-flavored Nylabone I bought him one hour after I adopted him. I just recently bought him the PetSafe Busy Buddy Dental Chew and he loves it, and it cleans his teeth at the same time that he chews on it! (Make sure you don't accidentally purchase the rawhide rings that go with this toy!)
The Kong Wobbler kibble dispenser is a great way to turn feeding time into playtime (as long as you don't live above someone, or at least have carpet--it can be super loud on hardwood floors). There are several other options of treat-dispensing toys to consider--they can be great to keep Puppy occupied for longer periods of time.
Stuffed animals or squeaky toys need to be selected with a lot of caution. Dogs can rip both the stuffing and the squeaker out of these toys, then chew on and possibly swallow them--resulting in a costly vet visit. So you always need to monitor Puppy while he plays with these kind of toys. I've found the Skinneeez brand toys to be awesome--they are stuffingless, and come with either squeakers or crinkly stuff inside (which dogs love).
That's a good place to start.
What I would definitely avoid for right now: rope toys/knots, tug o' war toys, and laser pointers. Shredded rope toy strands can apparently get all knotted up in Puppy's intestines (though some people argue they're great for teeth-flossing). Tug o' war toys are frowned upon by some training methods because they encourage Puppy to fight with you and give him the idea that he can beat you (some people think they're perfectly harmless). Laser pointers are HILARIOUS and AWESOME for the first 30 minutes--but after that, you'll get this sick feeling that Puppy is not so much enjoying chasing the dot as he is COMPLETELY FRUSTRATED AND CONFUSED BY THIS NEW LAW OF PHYSICS. And then you'll Google "should I use a laser pointer on my dog" and be plunged into the debate over whether it's harmless fun or apparently the worst psychological damage you can visit on a poor unsuspecting dog (I obviously bought one for Chance, and got rid of it the next day). So...don't get any of the above toys until you've done some research and made a decision that's right for you.
*IMPORTANT IF YOU'VE JUST RESCUED A YOUNG PUPPY FROM A SHELTER: Pretty much every shelter/rescue puppy has giardia. This is a parasite that causes diarrhea. Adult dogs aren't usually as affected as puppies. So if you just rescued a puppy, only get a few toys (like maybe three) and try to opt for ones that can be easily disinfected in boiling water. This is because Puppy is probably going to have to get treated for giardia within the next week, and they can reinfect themselves if they play with toys they played with while they were sick. So these toys that you're buying right now will either have to be disinfected or thrown out. FYI--if you try to boil a rubber toy with a squeaker, it probably won't squeak anymore. And just throw out the Skinneeez toy and get him a new one.
7. Wee-Wee pads
Even if the shelter swore Puppy was housebroken, just get a small package because you're gonna wanna carpet the kitchen with these for the first night just to be sure. And if you know Puppy isn't housebroken, you'll definitely need a bunch.
8. Collar and leash
You need a nylon or leather flat-buckle collar and a 6-foot training leash to start--you want the collar to be just tight enough that you can slip two fingers underneath, but not so loose that if Puppy backs away from you the collar comes off over his head.
DO NOT GET a flexi-leash (has a big plastic handle that houses a retractable leash)--these were developed for hunting dogs who follow a scent through the woods ahead of their handlers. They have since been adopted by lazy dog-owners who either don't want to walk as fast as their dogs or think that a dog needs to smell everything on a walk (to be discussed later), and they most likely will not be allowed at any obedience classes you enroll in.
A harness is ok but not necessary unless Puppy has health issues (like a slipped disc) that necessitates no pulling on the neck, or is a breed with breathing issues like a bulldog or pug. It’s best to use a harness under a vet's or trainer's recommendation/supervision. Many trainers say harnesses encourage pulling and some don't allow them in classes. You may ultimately decide this is best for you and Puppy, but if you just need to grab something to get started, start with the basics.
Also, don't get a choke-chain, prong-collar, or E-collar until a trainer has instructed you how to use it and recommended one for Puppy. For right now, just get a well-fitting flat-buckle collar and a regular old leash.
9. Basic toiletries
You need to brush your dog's teeth ideally every day, but at least 3-5 times per week. I know what you're thinking--who the heck brushes their dog's teeth?? That's why every dog you know has terrible breath--because their teeth and gums are rotting in their mouths. Dogs are just like people and need their teeth brushed. It's really not that hard (unless Puppy has issues getting his face touched, in which case you will want to hold off on this and talk to your vet). Same goes for ear-cleaning, although that only needs to be done once per week. So get a tube of toothpaste and a little toothbrush--Virbac Enzymatic Toothpaste (Chance likes the Malt flavor and it smells good) and Epi-Otic Advanced Ear Cleanser were both recommended by my vet. You will also need a shampoo for bathing Puppy--I got True Blue Puppy Shampoowhen I first got Chance and it's great. Ultimately, we upgraded to Furminator White Coat Ultra Premium Shampoo, because it brightens his white coat AND helps with shedding. You're gonna need a brush or two as well, but you're gonna need to--you guessed it--do some research to decide which brushes are appropriate for your Puppy's coat.
If Puppy seems to be a breed that has a lot of skin folds/wrinkles (like a pug or bulldog), you're going to need to clean out those wrinkles every day. I don't have personal experience with this, but it looks like right now, you can just use a washcloth and warm water to clean them and a dry soft cloth to dry them afterwards. Then, talk to your vet about whether you need special products.
10. Poop bags
You're gonna need a BUNCH of these and it's way cheaper to purchase online, so just get a couple rolls for now. I recommend Earth Rated poop bags, PARTICULARLY a package deal that I bought on Amazon--it comes with 900 lavender-scented bags and two little plastic dispensers that attach to you or the leash (link at the end of the chapter). First of all, they smell great and they're a nice thickness (I haven't ripped through one yet). Second--long story short, if you live in Los Angeles County, they're the most environmentally-friendly dog waste disposal option I've found (link to my blog post at the end of the chapter).
11. OPTIONAL (but highly recommended) – Thundershirt
So you know how stressed out you are right now? Imagine how Puppy feels. Even if you don't think Puppy is feeling overly anxious, I would recommend picking up a Thundershirt now. Don't take it out of the box and don't lose your receipt--you can return it if it turns out you've got a well-adjusted mutt. But if in the next couple of days Puppy starts nervous-shaking uncontrollably, or whining like crazy, you'll desperately try ANYTHING to get him to stop--and that's when you break out the Thundershirt. Some people swear by them and some people think it's bogus, but I think it's a good thing to have on hand.
12. How to Raise the Perfect Dog, by Cesar Millan
Love him or hate him, the Dog Whisperer has some incredibly important things to tell you that will seem TOTALLY OBVIOUS once you read them, but you'll never think of them on your own. For example--how do you intend on bringing Puppy into your house for the first time? You'd think you just let him walk on in, right? WRONG. So if they have this book (or Cesar Millan's Short Guide to a Happy Dog), get it now.
A note on Cesar Millan: Boy, do some people hate this guy. I’m perfectly willing to admit that you shouldn’t try any of the crazy shit he pulls on his show. But c’mon…you know that’s just for ratings, right? I’m even hesitant to suggest you use his leash-popping method, which is his go-to thing (it just didn’t work for us and I got worried I was gonna make Chance hate the leash). But a lot of his stuff about boundaries and using your energy to communicate with your dog REALLY hit home for me. For example, using my “energy” to “claim” the baby-gate we used to keep him in the kitchen—worked like a charm, and he’s never tried to knock it over. And if you’ve been to my blog, Patchwork Dogs, you know that MY thing is taking a little o’ this and a little o’ that from a bunch of different places. So I recommend taking what works from Cesar, and ignoring the rest…
Longest shopping list you've used since Christmas, amirite? You’ll want to get this stuff now and get it out of the way, because you're not gonna want to spend the next week figuring out how to get to a pet store or waiting for your Amazon shipment to arrive.
So now that you've paid (a lot), get in your car—again putting Puppy in the backseat. Next, I highly recommend reading this article by Cesar Millan called “8 Essential Steps to Bringing a New Dog Into the Home” before you even leave the parking lot! Then, you should probably skim Chapter Two of this guide really quick for some info you’ll need as soon as you get out of the car. You'll want to come back to it after you've been home for about an hour or so (after you've cuddled a bit, posted a ton of photos on Instagram, and poured yourself a glass of wine), but you really want to be prepared for Puppy's very first potty at his new forever home. Trust me.