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Cocoa turns 2!

Some things I've learnt about having a dog, since having a dog

Some things I've learnt about having a dog, since having a dog

My dog Cocoa turns 2 today, on 1 January 2019. I got her when I was 34, and although my family had two dogs when I was teenager, she is the first dog for whom I am the principal owner and carer.

We got Cocoa at the beginning of March 2017. Having her has – in many ways over the course of the past two years – transformed the lives of me and my husband. I love this little dog more than I thought possible, but the last two years of having her haven’t been plain sailing. I’m writing this for any wannabe pet-parents who are desperate to get a dog, but who have never had a dog before, or for anyone who has themselves got a puppy, and is finding it much harder, and less rewarding, than you thought it was going to be.

You will understand why so many dogs are rehomed

My first big realisation when we got Cocoa as a puppy was an understanding of why so many dogs – and especially young dogs – are rehomed.

Having a puppy is really hard. They take all your time and attention, if you don’t want them to a) destroy anything they can reach, or b) damage themselves in some significant way.

The difficult thing about this, is there isn’t that much written on the internet about just how hard having a puppy can be: about how frustrating and time-consuming it can be, and how it can really make you feel like a bad person if you aren’t able to train a puppy quickly enough, or give it as much love as you think it needs or wants.

I am the kind of person who likes to prepare for situations. I generally don’t act on impulse. Prior to getting a puppy, I’d read books on housetraining, how to keep a puppy and how to train a puppy, and what to expect when you bring your puppy home for the first time. I thought I was as prepared as it was possible to be and would be a great puppy mom. But I still wasn’t prepared for the intenseness that bringing little Cocoa home brought. There was no question I loved our little dog right from the start, and there was no way I would ever have even considered giving her up for adoption, but at many times during the first year, having her felt like a massive sacrifice for – sometimes – not as much gain as I had expected.

The good news, though, is that this phase – whilst hard at the time – is temporary. We got to 18 months with Cocoa, and things changed from being a constant struggle, to being a pleasure and a joy. Cocoa had grown up, we had learnt how to handle her, and she has turned into the most perfect little dog we could ever have hoped for.

Puppies need 100% of your attention for about the first six months of their lives

I really can’t underestimate the amount of time and attention a puppy needs. Cocoa was an easy puppy, from what I have read. She toilet-trained reasonably easily, she was playful and loving from the start, she never really barked, she never really damaged anything, never got car sick, and she slept for about 18 hours a day. But there were times when the attention she demanded was insistent, and time-consuming, and really inconvenient. It stopped me doing a million other things, at a very busy time in our lives (the backdrop to all of this is that when we got Cocoa, I was just starting my own business, and when Cocoa was just over a year old, we moved continent, so there was a lot of upheaval that both we and she had to deal with).

Training takes time

When you get a puppy, if you haven’t been around dogs for a while, or if you have little experience with puppies (like me and Pete), you might not realise that, despite training, puppies’ brains simply aren’t developed yet to receive all the training you might want to give them in the first few weeks and months of their lives.

No matter how well you think you can train your pup, there will be things they won’t be able to ‘get’ until they are a little bit older. There are habits that will only be broken with time – a lot of time, and a lot of repetition. Not days, or weeks, but months and months of repetition. And the pup will (according to your rules) ‘get it wrong’ all the time, until one day, it just clicks, and you realise that your well-intentioned training was mistimed, or that it just took that much repetition for your little dog to a) understand what you want from them and b) be sufficiently motivated to behave in the way you want them to.

Patience is everything.

You will fall in love with this puppy again, and again, and again

And it gets stronger over time. You get the little bundle home and think it’s the most precious thing in the world, but then that little bundle makes you fall deeper and deeper in love with it as time goes by. I love Cocoa more now than I did a year ago (when she was one), and I’m sure I’ll love her even more as time goes on.

All dogs are trainable, even breeds that are hard to train

In all honesty, I could have done more research before I got my puppy. I have wanted a Beagle my whole life, and when I read that they are ‘hard to train’ or ‘recall is hard to train’, I kind of turned a blind eye. When we eventually got Cocoa home and started to try and train her, there were times we thought she would never ‘get’ what we were asking her to do. There was a time when I thought we had made a mistake in getting a Beagle because of this – I was worried we would never be able to let her off the leash, which would have been such a shame, because I think off-leash is the time when many dogs are happiest, and is a big contributor to them leading a happy life.

Luckily for us, Cocoa doesn’t seem to have inherited the typical negative traits of the Beagle breed. Beagles are supposed to be hard to train, bad at recall (so much so that many Beagle owners never allow their dogs off-leash), and they are supposed to bark a lot. Cocoa is great off-leash (not perfect), and she virtually never barks. She does have the breed-typical qualities of being highly food-motivated, and incredibly loving and loyal.

Despite all the fears I had when I realised how hard it was to train my puppy compared with the Labrador dogs I’ve had in the past, there was no way we were going to do anything other than turn her into a well-behaved little dog, both for her sake and my sake. But I have to say, for the first few months, it weighed on my mind that we might never be able to let her off the lead or fully trust her off the lead. And it took many, many more hours of training and practice for me to be confident in her recall. It’s something that we constantly practice, and will never stop practising.

Walking well on the lead is SUPER HARD

I know some dogs get this really well, and relatively easily. I don’t have a lot of experience with walking dogs on the lead, because most of the time when we walked my parents’ dogs, we would take them to big, open parks where they could roam safely off leash for the whole walk. We would release them at the start of the walk, and they would jump into the car at the end of the walk, and we would only use the leash for the bits in between.

My life now is quite different from my life when I had dogs as a teenager. I now live in an urban environment, and in a US state where off-leash is practically outlawed (whole other blog post on that to follow). I’m lucky that there is a large reservation nearby where I can take Cocoa several times a week for an off-leash run, but a lot of the time, we have to walk on-leash around the streets of Boston. When we first started doing this, Cocoa didn’t know how to walk on leash, and I didn’t know how to train her to do it. The first six months after having moved to Boston were highly frustrating. Our walks would be super short, we wouldn’t go fast, we would dawdle, and Cocoa would want to sniff every single thing on the pavement. She wouldn’t get sufficient exercise from those walks, and I would arrive back home in a bad mood. It’s only after learning how to move her on and get her moving (which doesn’t just happen once the trainer knows what to do, it took a really long time for Cocoa also to get with the programme and figure out that’s what she was supposed to do on a walk).

The result is that now Cocoa walks pretty well on the leash. She still sometimes slams the brakes on and refuses to move, but I’ve learnt techniques to deal with this, including the command ‘sniff sniff’, which means it’s time for Cocoa to take a break and sniff something interesting (her favourite thing to do), and can now react accordingly. Sometimes it means we just turn around and go home. Other times, it’s because she’s afraid of something and has frozen. Most of the time though, we both enjoy our urban walks. There’s always a lot to sniff, but equally, when sniffing time is over, ‘let’s go’ gets Cocoa moving again with a waggy tail, onto new adventures.

Don’t even contemplate getting a dog if you don’t have outdoor space

When we got Cocoa, we lived in an apartment with a large balcony. Almost from day 1, we invested in getting a slice of turf delivered every two weeks for her to use as her toilet on the balcony.

This massively accelerated her toilet training, and hugely saved our sanity. When she was outside, we didn’t even have to train her to use it, she just knew what to do! It took a little longer for her to understand that she needed to ask to go outside to use the turf rather than pee inside, but she was fully housetrained between 5 and 6 months, and I think only had one accident indoors between 6 and 12 months (which I think was due to overexcitement and our lack of attention).

The turf also had the advantage of making our lives so much easier than if we had to take Cocoa outside every time she had to pee. Puppies pee A LOT, and at short notice too, so not having a dedicated outdoor space for them to pee would just have been setting ourselves up for failure. As a tiny puppy, Cocoa wouldn’t have been able to hold her bladder for the amount of time it took for us to put our shoes on, run down 4 flights of stairs and out the main front door of the apartment block.

Having a sick dog is one of the most stressful things you will ever experience

We’ve been really lucky in that Cocoa has only been properly sick on one occasion, which was as a result of eating cooked chicken bones that she gobbled down from the sidewalk before I could stop her. One of them got stuck and caused her discomfort and an upset tummy, but eventually passed. Whilst we knew the bone was still somewhere in her digestive tract, she was a very poorly bunny and had to be put on a drip at the vet, and given antibiotics.

But while the bones were still in there and we didn’t know whether they were causing her serious harm, or stuck, or anything, and Cocoa had no way of telling us other than being a very lethargic version of her little self, all we could do was follow the vet’s advice, none of which made Cocoa feel instantly better. We didn’t even know if we were diagnosing the right problem: we had to guess.

At least with humans, we can communicate the problem to one another.

Having a dog will curtail your freedom

My ultimate goal in getting a dog was to because I wanted snuggles, play time and far more walks in nature. Hiking is way more fun with a dog than without. I also wanted to eventually be able to go for a run with my dog. I’ve realised that doing all of these things is harder than I expected, and requires more time and training than I’d planned for.

But the truth is, you can’t do all of these things with a brand new puppy. A lot of the first year is spent caring for the dog, and prioritising their needs, so that in future, you’re set up to have the best cuddlebuddy and hiking partner you could ever have asked for.

In order to get there, we’ve needed to be able to compromise, adapt and we’ve needed a support network of friends and family, dog sitters, doggy daycare, kennels, and, more than anything, hours and hours of training.

At the start, this really did feel like a big compromise. But over time, things have got easier with Cocoa: we can leave her alone for short periods as we need to, we can take holidays and know she is in safe and caring hands, and she handles all of this like a champ. As time goes by, having to plan ahead for her care and wellbeing feels less and less of an unpleasant compromise and restriction on our freedom and spontenaeity, and more and more like something that is just part of the deal.

I love this little dog so much and am so happy to have her in my life, I feel like I hit the jackpot with my Beagle.

Follow Cocoa's adventures on Instagram @cocoa_the_adventurer, or you can email me at clairedransom@gmail.com.

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