Thinking of getting a dog? Thinking is how you get it right
The news that a dog was mauled to death by an American Staffordshire terrier at this year's Dubai Pet Show will have shocked many people, especially at an event designed as a family day out. Distressing though that incident was, however, many dog owners will vouch for the fact that with sensible precautions and sufficient planning, a dog can make a welcome addition to family life.
Martin Wyness, founder and chief executive of the British Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi, firmly believes that the right dog can be an asset to a family.
"Children who grow up confident around animals can really benefit," he says. "There is even evidence that having a dog contributes to their psychological and physical health."
The German expatriate Pia Reiter, who has a one-year-old golden retriever, says that having a dog has enriched her family life and benefited her two children, aged nine and six.
"It's a lot of work and sometimes we think, 'Why did we do this?'" she says. "But we really love him, especially the kids. They hug him; they play with him; he's just part of the family."
Having a dog has helped the children in other ways, too, says Reiter.
"They get much more responsibility; they're really nice and caring; it gives you some kind of a structure - even more than you have anyway with children."
Before introducing a dog into the family, it is important to think carefully about your lifestyle and what sort of dog will fit in with it.
Wyness explains. "If you are a highly energetic family with loads of space, and you like to do lots of exercise, a more athletic breed will be more suitable, but it won't work in a small apartment if you can't take it out and do stuff with it. A big, athletic, tough dog like a husky is not suitable for a small apartment on the 23rd floor. It should be obvious but it's not always; people do make some bizarre choices."
Wyness emphasises that prospective owners should be careful where they get their dog from.
"The best thing to do is to find a breeder and look at the dog's parents and make a thorough assessment. It is important that the breeder has socialised the puppy and got it used to new situations. A dog from a puppy farm will not have been socialised and got used to cars, crowds, people coming into the house or going in the car, and if this is not done when they are young, it is hard to get right when they are older."
For an increasing number of families, adopting a rescued dog from an animal shelter is an appealing option. According to Wyness, it is a "very worthwhile thing to do, if you go about it in the right way".
That right way, he says, is to spend time getting to know the dog and, ideally, to have a behavioural assessment of the animal done to ensure that it is suited to family life and, equally, has not been institutionalised by being in a shelter for too long.
Margit Muller, the director of the Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter, believes that although there might be no way of knowing what experiences an animal has had before it comes to the shelter, there are advantages to taking in a rescued dog.
"First of all and most importantly, adopted pets are so much more affectionate and loving as they might have had previously bad experiences or had a difficult life and appreciate their new, loving home much more. We also know the character of our pets for adoption; we can help and advise families to find the perfect pet for them."
Families taking in a rescued dog need to be patient when introducing it to their home, says Muller.
"It is always a good idea to adopt a pet when the family has some spare time, as this provides more quality time with the new pet. A daily routine has to be established and followed, and it is mandatory to understand that the new pet might require some quiet time for itself, to be undisturbed to rest or sleep. Children should be educated not to tease or harm dogs and to understand the dog's body language."
Wherever your dog has come from, it is essential to train it. The German-certified dog behaviourist and trainer Sonja Gehlsen, of Dogversation, says: "Only a trained dog will be enjoyable as he won't tug you around the block, eat your sofa or hunt your neighbour's cat."
According to Gehlsen, a dog's breed is not enough in itself to guarantee its temperament.
"I repeatedly get clients who researched on the internet about the ideal family dog and ended up getting a golden retriever. At some point they call me because they get desperate as their new addition to the family becomes uncontrollable. A golden retriever can indeed be an ideal family dog when well-trained as he generally is an energetic, playful and robust dog. But when untrained, these qualities can backfire as his energy gets uncontrollable."
A good trainer, according to Wyness, will use modern techniques rather than the harsh discipline favoured in days gone by.
"They'll be using the dog's own body language, his own communication strategy in order to get the point across. The old-fashioned, disciplinarian training is not appropriate. If you see anyone approach a dog with a choke chain, you'll know that they don't know what they're doing any more. These things are not appropriate and they don't work very well; in fact, they're counterproductive."
In addition to training, dogs need plenty of exercise, which can be a challenge in the UAE heat. Reiter, who walks her dog for around two hours a day, explains: "During the winter months, exercising him is OK, but in the summer it gets really difficult."
Reiter has also found that the culture in UAE is different from Germany, where dogs can be taken most places, even to coffee shops, and left in front of the door of the supermarket.
"I would say that without having a maid it would be almost impossible to have a dog in Abu Dhabi. You can't leave them in the car as it's just too hot, so he has to stay at home for quite a lot of time, which you cannot do if you don't have somebody staying in the house."
Despite the obstacles, though, for a family whose lifestyle permits it, a dog can be an invaluable addition, teaching children good habits and enriching their lives.
As Reiter says of her dog, "He just gives love." That's quite a character reference.
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