Friday, January 20, 2012

Facing the Fear of Being a Bad Dog Owner

By Julia Williams

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am a cat lady through and through. What you may not know is that I’ve also thought about getting a dog. I know cats better because I’ve shared my home with them for decades but have only had one dog. I “get” cats, but dogs remain largely a mystery to me. Perhaps it is precisely this unknown territory that intrigues me. I adore my cats more than anything, yet as an animal lover I want to experience the unique joy of having a dog. Actually, I could say the same thing about horses, rabbits, hamsters and birds – I’ve wanted to have all of these as a pet at one time or another.

The desire to adopt a dog is more intense, though. I think it’s because there are so many fun things you can do with a dog that you can’t do with a cat. You can go places with them, and there are umpteen dog sports you can enjoy together. My cats loathe the car, and the only sport that interests them is competitive eating….as in, let’s see who can finish their food first to “help” the others with theirs. I don’t think having a dog would be better than having cats, just different.

So why don’t I get a dog then? Oh, I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times, and there are so many reasons. The biggest is fear. Not fear of the unknown, but fear of being a bad dog owner. Dogs are complex creatures, and there is a lot involved in raising a happy, social, well mannered dog. I’m afraid that I would screw it up, and end up with a problem dog I didn’t know what to do with. I’m afraid that I don’t know enough about dogs to do it right. And if I’m going to adopt a dog, I want – no, need – to do it right.

I know that a lot of my fear comes from the painful memory of the time I did it wrong. When I was 18, I succumbed to those “sad puppy eyes” and adopted a dog from the shelter where I’d been volunteering. Never mind that I knew nothing about dogs, how to raise one, or how to deal with little problem behaviors before they became gigantic, insurmountable issues. I didn’t stop to consider what breed of dog might be best suited for me, or what they required beyond food and water. I was young and dumb, but that’s really no excuse for doing it wrong. I’ve never forgotten, and probably never forgiven myself, for being a bad dog owner.

One of our most popular articles on this blog is on the topic Jealousy in Dogs. We get comments every week from people asking for help with their particular issue. I can feel the desperation and apprehension in their words. They want to do it right, but they don’t know how. And every time I read yet another plea for help, that fear rises up again. What if I adopted a dog and this same thing happened to me? What if I didn’t know what to do or where to turn? I couldn’t bear it, so I push away the desire to get a dog.

Another thing that stops me from adopting a dog is my cats. Specifically, I fear they would feel betrayed by this intruder into their home. I fear they’d think I am replacing them with the dog. I’m sure many of you just laughed after reading that. How funny that I attribute such human emotions and thought processes to a cat, right? I know…but I fear it nonetheless. My cats have never been around dogs, and I have no idea how it would turn out. Photos of happy cats and dogs curled up together abound, but could my cats and a dog ever be friends? I don’t know…and what would I do if that didn’t happen?

I think the only thing I know for certain is how NOT to adopt a dog. I know that giving in to sad puppy eyes is never the right way, and that adopting a dog before you really, truly know what you’re getting into is setting yourself up for failure. I know that you need a basic understanding of the canine mind, and knowledge of what they need. I already know that my dog would eat CANIDAE, and I’ve learned a great deal about canine behavior from the knowledgeable writers on this blog. But at what point do I say, okay, I may not know everything but I know enough, and I am ready. I honestly have no idea, but I am open to your suggestions.

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. I actually felt and feel the same way about cats. I grew up mostly with dogs and ponies, didn't really have cats until I adopted Chumley back in April 2001. I honestly don't know I'd have travelled down that road if I knew what I was getting into. So many worries, so many health issues, such massive and unmanageable vet bills.

    Such HUGE responsibility, caring for another Being unto death.

    I can't say it's a responsibility I ever would choose again, once the boys are no longer with me.

    And absolutely your cats could be jealous of a newcomer. Nicki is jealous of the attention Derry gets, and definitely had his nose out of joint with Annie for the almost-four years between his adoption and her passing. It's valid, how your cats would react, etc.

    So no suggestions from this quarter; I'm sure others will chime in with helpful thoughts.

  2. Oh yes, do get a dog. It will be hard at first for the cats and dog to get used to each other. The secret is to get a puppy and to get the right breed or part breed.And take the puppy to doggie school just for socializing if for no other reason. And that is fun. Be sure you have enough time to take the puppy out to do it's business many times during the day. Also, get a pen kind of cage to put it in at night or during the day if you aren't going to be there. They like that. They think it is their very own room. You will love having a dog. It is a whole different deal than having cats. The cats will be nervous at first but they will get used to the dog. Just don't let the puppy maul the cats. I better shut up now. Take care.

  3. Having dogs and cats for what seems like my whole life, it seems strange to me that you would worry so much about getting a dog. Julia, you love animals so much you will be fine. Dont' worry about the cats. They will have a hissy fit (literaly) but so what, they'll get over it. A puppy would be a better choice for the cats to get used to. Our cats always terroized any new puppy addition in the house and made the rules. When you think about it cats don't really want you to bring home a new kitten either. I say go for it.

  4. First, if you think you should wait until you 'know it all,'-Forget it!! I don't care what breed or mix of breed you get, if it's a rescue or a puppy, you are in for many surprises that you can't plan for. lol

    Personally, I understand dogs better than cats, and I'm horrible about following rules and such, I prefer to guided to the animal that is for me. :)

    When I first got Brut as a puppy, Boxer was already a couple year old and put him in his place. Well that only lasted for while and they still have a bit of a power struggle between them. They are both pretty stubborn.

    I agree with Marge, if you can, I would suggest getting a puppy. I think it helps with easing the cats with a new comer. If you get an older dog, I would avoid dog breeds with a high prey instinct if you can, that will help socialize the cats if they aren't being stalk. (another plus about a puppy)

    Of course the cats are going to have an attitude, lol, you just have to learn how to prepare for that. I would suggest taking it slowly and using as much time as necessary. If you get a dog, you can also use a crate for him, so the cats can have some alone time with you. Our cats have their own room to get away from dogs.

    I think the biggest thing is time and patience. And stop being so afraid. :) If it is meant to be, it will work itself to be that way. :)

  5. Dogs and cats are so different and I can't imagine a life without both. There is excellent advice here already so I won't go into the details. But Julia, I know you can do it. You already know how. Love and compassion go a long way with dogs, and they'll train you just like cats do. Of course their body language and communication skills are different than cats but for a real animal lover, all you have to do is pay attention. It will open up a whole new world for you. I can help. Do it!

  6. I'm with everyone else. The cats won't like a new addition at first, but you never know, they may also fall in love with a new dog. Besides, you're older and wiser now and you have all of us to help you. Take the plunge. I bet you'll be glad you did.

  7. Don't try to be perfect, dogs are very forgiving :)

  8. Well, you could find a dog that is part cat. Pip is actually very cat like and not very dog like so it makes life pretty easy! You might also consider adopting an older dog. This way you would know their personality and skip some of the difficult puppy years.

    Actually, we just adopted a rabbit and they are SO DIFFERENT from both cats and dogs it is crazy. We are now a three species household - Pip and the two cats are like one in the same compared to Lulu, our bunny. It's very interesting.

  9. Like many of the others, I think that you should worry less and "just do it" but just get advice from the group that you're getting the dog from on which dog will be best with your cats.

    I agree with the others too that a puppy would be most easy to socialize with the cats, BUT if you got a calm, older dog that would be OK too. That is, after all, what I did. We had to be firm in the beginning that the dogs were not to harass the cats, and if you want, I can privately send you info on how we did that (just to save space here, not that there's any secret.) The cats were NOT happy in the beginning, and we're never going to be a house that gets pictures of dogs and cats snuggled together, but they adapted and at least tolerate them. One thing that helped them accept the dogs was to give them their own area - just by putting a baby gate up in the guest room doorway with a big enough gap for a cat to get under but not a big enough gap for a greyhound to get under. THe cats can go in there and be dog-free whenever they like, and that's where their food and litter is too.

  10. Mom has never had a cat and really doesn't think any of us would be very good with cats. But it is probably a lot easier to bring a young dog into a family with cats than the reverse. You seem to love animals so much and are so well-educated on so many animal-related topics - go for it, do your research, decide what you are looking for in a dog, visit some rescues, and we guarantee you the right dog for you will find you:)

    Woos - Phantom, Thunder, Ciara, and Lightning

  11. We've never considered any issues with having a dog vs. a cat since we've always had both around here. The cats before us didn't like our sisfur Sadie though and would run from her so she's confused when we get close and don't run at all but she's never hurt us and mostly ignores us. It won't be easy to bring a dog into the household but it'll be worth it! The only negative for dogs is that they don't use a litter box so our beans can only be gone for 4-5 hours max since they have to come home and let Sadie out. Sometimes this is limiting and it means no weekend trips since Mommy freaks out at the thought of leaving us with a sitter.

  12. Julia - I have always had a house full of dogs and cats. Now I am a cat only household but I do missing having a dog. They are a lot of responsibility though, and with my lifestyle, now is not the time for me to have one.

    As far as you, you are a kind, considerate, and compassionate human being - those are the main ingredients to having a happy dog and I don't think you could ever be a bad dog owner!

  13. Dogs and cats are so different, but having grown up in a house that had a cat and a dog that got along, I think you could do it. I know you are so in tune with your cats, Julia, and your concern about doing things right makes me certain you would do your research to find a dog whose temperament and nature fit well with those of your cats. They certainly do exist (check out our Wordless Wednesday post from this past week, for example). :)


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