Thinking about getting a dog? Take a good look at your family and lifestyle first, before falling in love with Fluffy's cute photo on the Internet, dog adoption experts say.
What type of home do you have? How many hours a day is someone home? How much time do you have to devote to the dog each day? How much time for exercising it? Training it? Is there a convenient place to do so nearby? Who will take care of it when you go on vacation? Do you want a running buddy or a lap dog? Do you have enough money for a dog's expenses for the next 10-15 years?
The typical modern household — in which everyone is up and out by 8 a.m. and not back until dinnertime, then busy in the evenings and on weekends activities — might not be the best home for a social pack animal who might end up being locked up in a crate all day.
If this describes your household, don't get a puppy, says Barbara Healy, adoption manager at Maryland SPCA, they need frequent potty breaks. "They can hold it for one hour for every month of age, so you have to arrange your schedule around that. They need constant socialization and training from the get-go."
Most people are not prepared for the exercise requirements of a medium or large dog. At least one hour a day is recommended.
"If you have a backyard, that's great, but dogs tend to lounge around out there or use it for potty breaks. You need to spend time exercising the dog each day," Healy says.
Once you answer all the lifestyle questions, it will be easier to determine the size, breed, age, energy level and temperament you want.
Shelters like the Maryland SPCA see many different breeds and mixes come through their doors each year. But Healy warns against "breed stereotyping" when choosing a dog.
For example, "Jack Russells are wild and crazy, but some are lower on the activity range. Labs can be great family dogs but can be like big puppies through two years of age," she says.
She recommends visiting a shelter because staff is there to personally counsel potential adopters. "They know the animals best and have been taking care of them every day, and may have information from previous owners, such as whether they are good with children."
What should you look for when visiting with a dog?
"You want to see a dog that is kind of loose and wiggly," she says. "Look at the body language. If they're happy, they want to greet you."
Keep in mind that shelters are full of dogs that were surrendered by their owners because they were poor fits for the household, not because they are bad dogs. They might have been unwanted purchases, victims of a move or a death in the family, or left alone too often and became destructive, Healy says.
A dog show or breed rescue group are good places to research dogs. This is what Pam and Chuck Ball of Chicago did.
After owning a series of Alaskan malamutes — 115-pound heavy coated dogs bred for Arctic hauling — they decided to downsize.
They went to a dog show and identified a few breeds they liked, but didn't feel comfortable paying thousands of dollars to an out-of-state breeder sight unseen, who would have to fly the dog to them. (The Humane Society of the United States says many dogs sold this way come from puppy mills.)
The Balls started looking at rescue dogs within a drivable range on Petfinder.com instead.
They ended up with a joyful little 7-year-old, 18-pound cairn terrier named Oz.
Pam says his sweet face and puppy dog eyes reached out and grabbed them from his online photo.
They drove to Michigan to meet his foster family before bringing him home. The adjustment period took a while with a few behavior issues to overcome. But two and a half years later, Oz is a well adjusted, happy dog.
"Originally we were looking for a three-year-old medium-sized dog with dark fur," Pam says. "But I can't tell you how nice it is to have a lap dog. It's a real good lesson in not making your parameters too tight. He has completely stolen our hearts."
The Humane Society of the United States has more good advice for potential adopters at humanesociety.org.