The Christmas Puppy Problem
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
I was browsing through Facebook several days ago when I came across a video from our local Fox affiliate, Fox 32. The first sentence of the story was, “If a dog or puppy is on your holiday shopping list – be careful.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said out loud in horror.
“Let’s just go ahead and promote the notion of puppies as Christmas gifts to all of the Chicagoland area!!!!” I fumed some more.
I promptly sent a message to their Facebook page that read, “As a dog blogger who is on a mission to help prevent owner surrenders of dogs, the lead into your article about the puppy FB scam is disheartening. Puppies are never gifts, those of us who promote responsible pet ownership work hard to get this message through to the people who buy puppies as gifts with as much thought as they give a sweater or handbag. Please don’t undo our work as you report the news!”
To date I have not received a response or have any evidence that they’ve read my message.
The rest of their story was warning potential puppy buyers not to fall for scams involving puppies for sale, which is definitely important. Of course, they did not go into detail on how to successfully find a reputable breeder or look at rescue or shelter pups or grown dogs, but the advice to not purchase puppies from random strangers in a Facebook group is certainly something that many people need to know.
Let me explain why I was, and still am, so upset by that one short sentence that was broadcast to their entire viewing area: puppies are living breathing creatures that require a lot of time, patience, training and work. They do not belong on a “shopping list” like a cashmere sweater, a toolbox and an X-box game.
Unfortunately every year these living breathing, feeling creatures do indeed make it onto a Christmas list. Puppies are then purchased through pet stores or backyard/amateur breeders as gifts either on a whim or to fulfill heartfelt requests to Santa from children who want a puppy.
In other scenarios they are an impulse buy as holiday shoppers wander through the mall pet stores and are wooed by the siren like pull of the adorable, fluffy puppies in baby cribs that downplay the fact that puppies are a different species with different needs than a human and that there is a learning curve for novice dog owners who are tackling puppyhood for the first time. The shoppers fall in love at first sight with these puppies with designer “breed” names like Cavachon and Huskimo, and take them home without thinking about the fact that they have just committed to anywhere from ten to fifteen years of caring for an animal that will need them for every aspect of their survival.
Many of these puppies are then abandoned at shelters just days, weeks, or months later after the adults realize that a puppy was not on their list of responsibilities that they were ready to handle. Other puppies end up living the majority of life in crates or in the back yards of owners who feel too much guilt for what they’ve done to abandon or re-home the dog but have no idea how to handle a dog that quickly went from adorable fluff ball to a wild, untrained, and seemingly unmanageable dog. That life is almost as tragic as landing in a shelter; it is in fact no life at all for a dog to suffer like that, alone and unloved.
As a culture, we love Christmas and we love puppies, and so it is understandable that when you put them both together, the idea of a Christmas puppy seems genius. I mean, seriously, what is cuter than a puppy with a bow around its neck under the Christmas tree? And when you are the person presenting this gift, either to your children, to your significant other, or to a parent, in that moment you are the hero of gift giving. You are like a rock star only better! You are not handing over a new gaming system or some piece of jewelry that every other person has bought, you are literally bestowing new life and the promise of unconditional love on the recipient…whether they want the accompanying responsibility of that new life or not.
Movies, TV shows, catalogs, all show endless photos of happy Christmas puppies. These images are all over our culture. Google “Christmas puppies” and you will receive pages upon pages of results. Do the same search with “movies about Christmas puppies” and you will receive another robust list of results. It is no wonder children ask Santa for a puppy or parents finally concede to their child’s pleas to get them a dog over the Christmas holiday. Our culture is full of the idea of puppies at Christmas time, under trees, in boxes, in Christmas stockings, complete with bright red bows to make the gift complete.
Just today I received a catalog from my beloved retailer L.L. Bean with a fluffy Golden Retriever puppy on the front, snoozing away under the Christmas tree with the other holiday presents with a red bow around its neck. The puppy looks perfectly angelic in the photo, but as a lifelong Labrador owner, I can tell you that it takes one hell of a lot of work to achieve a sleepy puppy for a photo shoot, and the moment that puppy wakes up, a human will be telling him “NO” and removing his little razor-sharp puppy teeth from the lights on the tree, the bow wrapped around the box, and even the box itself.
I can forgive L.L.Bean for this, because their products at least promote the outdoor, active lifestyle that is suited for a Labrador or a Golden Retriever, so their customers are slightly more likely to own the boots, hats, gloves, and parkas that will be needed to house train the puppy in the middle of December and into January. But that is one photo among thousands of other images and sources that glamorize the puppy as a holiday gift.
Personally, I obviously love dogs and I definitely love Christmas, and I love them together, in real life and in photos. I adore puppies, and I loved raising my own puppies into big sturdy dogs, even the moments that had me close to tears because Jax was a hard sell on the “no bite” concept or when his energy level was at a 14 on a scale of 1 to 10 and my own was a 3 from lack of sleep. I love looking at them now and thinking about how tiny they were, how I could pick them up and they would fall asleep on my chest, and how I taught them day in and day out all of the things that they would need to know as dogs in our household.
I equally love to look at them and think about all of the things that they have taught me in return, about dog ownership and about life. I love how I raised them from puppies to adults and how close we are as two separate species who went from being total strangers to sharing a special bond. So when I talk about the work that lies ahead for puppy owners, it is with the firm belief that the work is worth it, but I would be doing a disservice to other puppy owners to minimize the work that it takes to go from puppyhood to adulthood, because trust me. There is a lot of work ahead.
Before I had my own dogs, I helped my parents with their dogs. My freshman year of college, my parents acquired our Labrador Retriever Jake the weekend of Thanksgiving, so we have tons of adorable puppy pictures of him around the Christmas tree. Jake’s puppyhood is also how I know that the adorable puppy under the tree will also be the same puppy who is trying to eat the lights, steal the ornaments, and chew on all of the gifts immediately after peeing on the carpet and trying to drink the tree water. I don’t make these things up when I am blogging, I’ve lived life with many puppies and know that that’s what puppies do. One minute they are adorable balls of fluff with liverwurst-meets-Starbucks scented puppy breath; the next they are like a tiny little ball of destruction wreaking havoc in your home.
Are all Christmas puppies abandoned at shelters or destined to living life in a crate or a back yard in an unprepared owner’s home? No, of course not. I have personal friends who have brought home puppies at Christmas and who would never dream of abandoning them; those dogs are as beloved and well cared for as my own dogs.
As someone once told me when they were attending a training class where I used to work, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” That applies 100% to new puppy owners who have big hearts and great expectations but simply have no idea what they are getting into with an eight week old puppy and the work that lies ahead for at least the next few months to go from adorable Christmas puppy to well-behaved, socialized dog.
As a result, during the month of December, the Love, Laugh, Woof blog will focus on the idea of puppies and Christmas, to help reach people who are contemplating getting a puppy as a holiday addition to their families. From winter specific considerations, to how to do a holiday puppy or grown dog the right way, conversations to have with the kids, and other important topics, we will focus entirely on spreading the word that dogs are a lifelong commitment, not something to be bought on a whim.