Parking Lot Puppies

Not long ago, as I walked through the parking lot of a major discount store, a large crowd had gathered around the back end of a tired looking van. “Free Puppies,” was hastily scrawled on a brown cardboard sign, and taped to the outside of the vehicle. Inside there were seven, maybe eight, active balls of fur. Some were eager for attention, their noses pushing to the front of the pack, while others lingered in the back of the truck, uncertain and reluctant. Odds were good that some individuals and families, who had come looking for a new appliance, would instead leave the parking lot with a new puppy. Despite the sign, puppies always come with a financial and emotional price tag.

A friend once remarked that people – for better or worse – tend to choose a puppy in the same way they choose a mate. The decision is often an emotional one, impulsively based on conformation. Size, shape, eye and hair color often take precedence over personality, intelligence and health. It should come as no surprise then, that the divorce rate between dogs and owners is as high as the divorce rate among people. Unfortunately, when dogs are divorced from owners, they often find themselves among the thousands who are dropped off at the local shelter, or casually left behind on the road next to someone’s farm.

The decision to get a puppy should be pre-meditated. Visit the animal shelter, attend a dog training class, spend some time online or at the local library, researching the various breeds to determine which ones best suit your lifestyle. Then, get some first hand, down-to-earth information from people who live with the breeds that interest you. Pet owners usually need no urging to share their war stories with you, and are a wonderful resource if you want an honest glimpse into the future. Unlike someone trying to sell you a puppy out of the back of a van, pet owners will quite frankly tell you about the amount of food their dogs consume in a month, and can give you an item by item list of the costs associated with keeping a dog healthy. Sheepishly, they may also tell you about the time they left their adolescent retriever waiting in the car, returning to find the headrests afloat in a mound of foam rubber where the seats had been.

Cute, pudgy little puppies grow quickly into challenging, independent adolescents and adults. Before you make the decision to bring one home, read everything you can get your hands on and then find a reputable breeder who can show you the puppy’s parents and let you see firsthand what an adult dog will look like and how it behaves. A good breeder will ask you many questions, help you pick the right puppy, and provide you with a wealth of information. A good breeder will guarantee the health of the puppy. An outstanding breeder will offer a “lifetime return policy” promising to recover the dog, in the event you are unable or unwilling to take care of it at any point in your life. Once you choose a pup and bring it home, take time to observe a few local training classes, and find an instructor whose methods are positive, effective and fun.

Signs boasting “Free Puppies” should come with a long list of disclaimers. In reality, there is no such thing as a free puppy – but with a little time and effort, the right one could be priceless.