Christmas morning. Jimmy and Susie rush down the stairs in their pj's and shriek with delight. Santa has finally yielded to their incessant requests: A sweet, wriggling puppy is waiting for them beneath the tree, adorable in his big red bow. It's love at first sight. The puppy slurps the kids' faces then curls up on their laps. The children beam. The camcorder rolls.
This could be a mess.
Even if your kids don't pester you all year for a dog, which they probably did, TV ad campaigns and treacly movies will make sure you can picture how lovely it would be to bring a puppy home for the holidays. Don't succumb.
Why is a Christmas dog a mistake?
First, because no animal should be a surprise. The arrival of a dog changes a household considerably—for years. Someone has to take responsibility for their daily needs—feeding, exercise, health care, grooming. The decision should be thought about, talked about, negotiated. A new dog, not necessarily a puppy, either, should be the result of a process, not an impulse.
Kids can be unreliable; kids change. The puppy melts their hearts for a few days or weeks. But then it needs to be walked every day (in the rain). It needs careful attention to its feeding and eliminating if it's going to be housebroken effectively. It needs to be taught not to jump on Grandma. The kids oohing and aahing under the tree will soon move on to IMing and texting their friends. Few children outside of 4-H programs and Future Farmers of America want to be tied down to conscientious animal care, and their parents are often no more enthusiastic. Reality will soon supersede the Christmas morning fantasy.
The bigger problem with the Christmas pup is that good dogs are usually unavailable for holiday giving. Hardly any ethical dog provider will support the idea of a dog as a surprise present. Good breeders have carefully constructed breeding programs that are rarely tied to the idea of seasonal gifts, unless arrangements have been made with people they know well far in advance. Breeders don't want their dogs to end up in households where nobody understands the work involved in raising them. Experienced rescue group volunteers and shelter workers hate the whole idea of the Christmas dog because they know many of those dogs will be coming back to them.
The dogs that are readily available at Christmas are the kind you probably don't want. Puppy mills grind out thousands of puppies to meet holiday demand. They're the dogs you find in pet stores and malls—cute as puppies but often inbred, poorly socialized, and more prone to genetic health problems like allergies or bad hips or to behavioral difficulties like compulsive barking or chewing.
For Christmas, get the kid an Xbox 360, or an iPod. They'll love it and use it. You don't have to clean up after it, and if they lose interest, you won't have to walk it in the middle of a snowstorm.
If you and your family really want a dog, choose it carefully, and take your time. Get one from a reputable breeder, an experienced rescue group, or an established animal shelter. Ask lots of questions about the dog; expect the breeder or staff to ask you a lot, too. If they don't, be wary. A store clerk or amateur breeder who simply hands you a dog in exchange for your credit card is not your friend. Experienced dog people know the dogs they sell and the people they are selling them to. And don't worry if the dog comes to you in April instead of on Christmas morning. It will be just as adorable without the tree and the bow.