How to Care for a Dog: The Ultimate Guide
Here are our best tips to care for your dog. Our ultimate guide covers feeding, grooming, exercise, housing, training, identification, spaying and neutering, poisonous foods, teeth, nails and much much more. Sign up for our newsletters to get 20% off your first order and download the eBook.
Dog Care Topics Overview
- Basic Care
- Know Your Breed's Predispositions
- Spaying and Neutering
- Poisonous Foods
- Anal Glands
- Dog Supply Checklist
Just like humans, dogs’ dietary needs vary with their breed, size, age, and gender (for example, when pregnant or nursing). Speak with your breeder and vet about what foods they recommend.
Talk to your vet about any human food you consider feeding your pet. In general, we recommend sticking to food intended for dogs, as many human foods can be poisonous, and dogs’ dietary needs are different than yours.
Most dogs love bones, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, you shouldn’t give them any bone that’s at hand. Small bones can splinter when chewed, cutting your dog’s mouth. They, or pieces of them, can also be swallowed, choking or causing obstructions. Bits of food clinging to bones can also cause health problems.
To avoid all these problems, it’s best to stick to giving dogs bones, chewable toys, and chew treats designed & produced for that purpose. Ask your vet for age and breed-appropriate suggestions if you need guidance.
The best techniques, tools, and frequencies for grooming your dog are going to vary with their breed, coat, and lifestyle.
- Long hair dogs, especially those with fine fur, often need to be brushed.
- Bathing your dog keeps them smelling better and reduces the amount of dirt getting spread about your home.
- How often your dog needs their fur to be trimmed will depend on the breed. Some breeds will need their fur trimmed in particular ways for health reasons (though usually breed-specific cuts have more to do with aesthetics).
Exercise is a very important part of your pet’s health regimen. Exercising not only helps keep your dog fit, it reduces stress and can be a lot of fun! How much exercise your dog needs will depend on their breed, age, and temperament.
How much activity they’ll require to live a healthy life is often an important consideration when selecting what breed to get.
You want to make sure you’re housing your dog in circumstances that are appropriate for their breed and your climate. Dogs have fur, but that doesn’t make them impervious to cold or the elements!
Some breeds (like greyhounds) get cold very easily, while others (like Saint Bernards and French Bulldogs) can overheat very easily. It’s important to be aware of what they need in general, as well as visual cues to how your dog is doing at a given moment. It is your responsibility to keep them safe and comfortable.
How easy it is to train your dog, i.e. how willing they are to learn, how quickly they’ll pick up knowledge, and how they’ll react to various forms of reinforcement, will depend on their breed and individual temperament. A huge amount of literature has been written surrounding dog training that we won’t get into here.
When you’re just getting started as a dog owner, you may find hiring a trainer (either on an individual basis or in group classes) to be very helpful – not only can they help you establish the basics, but they can also help you learn how best to communicate new skills, commands, and guidelines to your furry friend in future.
Many modern trainers advocate for positive-reinforcement training (praise, treats, clickers, etc) over negative-reinforcement training (choke chains, spraying them with water, scolding) when possible.
It’s best if any negative reinforcement does not involve causing your pet pain or harm in any way. You want them to get the message that what they’re doing is wrong, but you don’t want to hurt them or make them afraid of you!
Even with fences and leashes, there’s a risk your furry friend will get away from you. It’s essential that there’s some way for people to bring them back to you. Their collar should have a tag with your contact information, they should have a license if required by law, and you may also want to get them microchipped. These tiny chips are easy for vets to implant, and will tell vets and shelters brought your lost dog exactly how to get in touch with you.
Just like humans, it’s possible for canines to develop health problems based on their genetics. While you may not know the health history of your pup’s family, a dog’s breed can carry with it certain health risks that you should be aware of.
This effect is most predictable in purebred dogs (and some intentional crossbreeds), as the breed has been intentionally pushed in specific genetic directions over time. It’s good to look into these things when selecting a breed, but once you have your furry friend, it’s time to have a talk with your vet about what to watch out for, and whether there’s anything you can do to protect them.
- Dalmatians have a genetic predisposition to blindness
- Pugs, French bulldogs, and other “smoosh face” dogs are more likely to get respiratory ailments
- Saint Bernards and other large dogs are more likely to develop knee or hip problems
- Greyhounds and Whippets get cold very easily
- Dogs with long “drop” ears are more likely to get ear infections
- Dachshunds’ long, thin backs make them more likely to have issues with their vertebrae
Talk to Your Vet – Forewarned is Forearmed
Your vet can help you understand what symptoms to watch out for, what significant medical expenses you might want to prepare for down the line (just in case), and what you can do to help protect your furry friend.
Knowing what to watch out for now can save your companion pain, and you money, in the future. For example, given dachshunds’ likelihood to have back problems, owners who discourage jumping, watch their weight closely, and carry them up and down stairs/furniture can help protect them. Large dogs with deep-chests can be at risk of developing a condition called bloat, which is fast and life threatening, when they eat, but there are ways you can arrange their eating area to help keep them safe.
The American Kennel Club breed guide can be very helpful at establishing a base level of knowledge, but it’s no substitute for a vet’s expertise and experience.
Breeding dogs should only be done with careful planning, care, and expertise to ensure their safety. In today’s society is responsible pet owners are expected to spay or neuter their pets, preventing them from reproducing.
This does involve surgery, but the practice is very common and generally safe. If you get your pet from a pound or shelter, it’s quite possible that they have already been spayed or neutered. Some breeders may require you to sign a contract to have your new pet “fixed” within a set period of time.
What’s Safe for You May be Dangerous for Them!
Just because something is safe for you to eat, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for your pup. Several people foods can be extremely dangerous to dogs. They may just as delicious to them as they are to you though, they won’t realize what they’re eating is harmful (and, given the limitations of puppy memory, won’t remember what it was that got them sick). It’s up to you to protect them.
Here are some of the more common ones:
- Alcohol– this probably isn’t a surprise, but alcohol is very, very bad for dogs. Don’t let them drink it.
- Alliums (Onions, Garlic, etc)– These can cause soften stools or diarrhea in small doses (like if you drop a bit of diced onion and your pet gets to it before you do), but can be far more dangerous in large doses.
- Avocado– While there is at least one brand of dog food on the market with avocado in it, unprocessed avocado contains “persin” which can lead to serious digestive issues. The problem isn’t just the fruit. If you have an avocado plant, don’t let Fido chew on any part of it.
- Caffeine– Caffeine can be extremely dangerous to dogs, causing blood pressure spikes and other problems. Don’t give your dog anything with caffeine in it – no coffee, tea (black, green, oolong, or white), chocolate, etc.
- Chocolate– We’ve already discussed the dangers of caffeine, but chocolate also contains theobromine, which is also poisonous to them. The darker the chocolate, the higher the risk, but don’t give any chocolate to your dog.
- Grapes (and Raisins)– This fruit may seem healthy and harmless, but it actually can cause vomiting and kidney failure for pups.
- Leavening Agents– Don’t let your dog eat baking powder, baking soda, or uncooked yeast doughs, they all bring with them various health risks (toxicity, bloating, etc).
- Macadamia Nuts– Delicious, but very poisonous to dogs.
- Pills Not Prescribed by Your Vet – Dogs react to medicines in different ways and doses than humans. If you believe your dog has gotten into any kind of pills, call the vet’s office immediately.
- Seeds – Many plants have seeds that contain things that are poisonous (even fruit you find in the grocery store). In addition, seeds are a physical object that is small enough to swallow, but won’t break down as much as food in their stomach. That can lead to blockages in the digestive system, which can be very, very serious.
- Spices– Did you know nutmeg is a hallucinogen and cassia (commonly sold as cinnamon in the US) is a blood thinner? It’s true, but generally they aren’t a problem for humans because recipes use them in such small quantities. Your dog is smaller than you are, can metabolize things differently, and may gobble a much higher dose if they get into your pantry.
- Xylitol– this is an artificial sweetener that may have anti-cavity properties. It shows up in sugar-free processed foods, especially gums and candies. Because of its possible ability to help your teeth, it also shows up in toothpaste. Unfortunately, it’s also VERY poisonous to dogs.
Beyond the not-so-intuitive items above, keep in mind that if something isn’t safe for you to eat, it’s probably equally unsafe for your dog. While raw food diets have become popular for pups, it’s important to remember that raw meat, eggs, and seafood bring with them the same risks you’re warned about in your kitchen. Dogs aren’t immune to foodborne illnesses or parasites any more than you are.
Dental health is just as important for dogs as it is for humans (in some breeds, perhaps more so). While there are a variety of chew toys and treats on the market designed to help prevent tartar buildup, actual tooth brushing can be a very important part of keeping your pup healthy.
Beyond cavities, poor oral health can also lead to a host of other health problems, such as infections, bad breath, and digestive issues.
DO NOT EVER USE HUMAN TOOTHPASTE TO BRUSH YOUR DOG’S TEETH!
Many products contain ingredients that are very poisonous to dogs.
The more often you brush their teeth (and reward them afterwards), the more used to this your pet will become.
Just like humans however, there’s no substitute for a full, expert clean by a dentist (or in your dog’s case, a vet). Most vets recommend doing this at least once a year, but may recommend it more often depending on your dog’s breed, age, and health situation.
A professional dental deep-clean typically involves sedating your dog, so keep the extra time, recovery, and expense in mind when making an appointment. Your vet will typically tell you to withhold food (but not water) for a set period of time prior to the appointment.
NonScents Dog Oral Spray not only destroys the compounds that cause canine bad breath, it can also help promote oral health by killing bacteria, reducing inflammation, and more.
Dogs’ nails should be trimmed regularly. There are a variety of tools available on the market for this purpose, ranging from Dremel-like devices that sand the nails down, to clips that cut right through the nail.
When trimming dogs’ nails, it’s very important to be aware of where the “quick” is - a part of the nail that is not solid nail and contains flesh. Cutting into the quick will cause it to bleed, and your poor pet some pain. Of course, the more time this happens, the less enthusiastic they’ll be about letting you trim their nails.
If this is your first dog, it’s a great idea to ask an expert (a vet or groomer) to teach you the best way to trim nails. Videos online can also be helpful for illustrating the appropriate length and spot for trimming.
This probably isn’t a section you’re looking forward to reading, but it is an important one. You probably know that dogs have evolved to mark their territory by peeing in key spots. What you may not know is that they also mark their territory when they poop.
All dogs have two special glands on their butts, one on either side of their anus, that excrete a liquid with their signature smell and are used for this purpose. These glands are also likely what other dogs are checking out during that classic butt-sniffing greeting.
Because of their location, it’s possible for these glands to get blocked. If they get blocked and stay blocked, they can get infected.
If your dog starts scooching their butt on the ground, there’s a good chance that these glands are giving them discomfort. They’re trying to clear the obstruction themselves. That doesn’t always work, and if it does the gland may release a little dark goop onto your carpet when it does get cleared.
It’s better for these glands to be cleared (“expressed”) in a controlled way if they get blocked. This is something you can do with your hands and a paper towel, but if you’re not comfortable doing so, it’s something vet techs (and some groomers) do all the time. They can do it for you, or teach you how.
As a new dog owner, there are several things you should pick up:
A Collar and a Leash
Collars don’t just carry your dog’s identification and leashes don’t just keep them from getting away. Leashing your dog can be required by law in many areas and also helps keep them (and other dogs) safe. They can also help keep other people safe. Even if your dog is never aggressive, other people’s dogs might be, and small children or the elderly can also be injured by friendly, but overenthusiastic dogs who jump on them.
Your dog needs to eat, and you’re responsible to providing them with chow that keeps them healthy and happy. If you’re not sure what food to give them, ask your vet and (if applicable) the breeder.
Food & Water Bowls
Your dog’s food and water need someplace to go! Water should always be available for your pooch, unless your vet says otherwise. If your dog’s breed is prone to bloat, you may want to buy special food bowls that have stands that make them hold their head higher, and/or designs that make it harder for them to inhale the whole bowl in seconds.
Dog Poop Bags
Cleaning up after your dog isn’t just your civic and moral responsibility, it also helps everyone stay healthier. Dog poop can transmit diseases (and stepping in it ruins someone’s day). Many areas have laws with strict punishments for owners who don’t clean up after their pets.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that dogs, especially new dogs, can have accidents. This can happen when they’re very young (and don’t know better), very old (and thus have less bladder/bowel control), get nervous, get sick, or for a host of other reasons. You should be prepared.
An additional wrinkle for dog owners is the fact that dogs use scent to determine good places to “go”. Even if you’ve cleaned up a spot well enough that you can’t see or smell any stains, a dog’s superior nose may be able to catch things you can’t. Any lingering odors can act as a beacon, indicating to your pup that this is an acceptable place in future.
NonScents Odor & Stain Remover Spray doesn’t just get rid of stains, it destroys odor-causing compounds at the molecular level. It’s faster and more effective than competing products, and has a unique ability to continue to protect a treated spot for weeks afterwards. Any new odors deposited in that spot will be immediately eliminated! That can make your life as a pet owner a LOT easier.
Optional: A dog coat
If your dog is a breed that gets cold easily (or you just want to help them say dry & dapper in the rain), a coat can be a good idea.
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