September-October 2019 | Bethesda Magazine

Dog Days

Having a puppy is great, except when it isn’t

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When Mellie plays fetch in the morning, she’s less likely to get herself into trouble. Photo by Liz Lynch

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, pet owners can expect to spend about $1,800 on a medium-size dog in the first year. That’s a low estimate, in my experience. I spent almost $1,000 just on Mellie’s grooming. She doesn’t shed, so I don’t have to vacuum every 10 minutes. But we have to brush her hair daily to prevent matting and get it cut every month or so for $70. (It’s an additional $20 to cover a pickup and drop-off service.) I also spent several hundred dollars the first year for food, treats, leashes, harnesses (including one for the car), a rain jacket, a winter coat, poop bags, a car crate, two house crates, three dog beds, blankets, a brush, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a feeding bowl, a nail clipper, urine disinfectant spray, shampoo, toys, gates and Safe Paw ice melt. I spent another $800 to enclose my backyard so Mellie could run off leash, and $390 to board her during a six-day trip.

Then there are the vet costs, which can come as a shock to pet owners. “I didn’t think to get pet insurance at first, but within six months of having my dog I had over $800 of vet bills,” says Christine Burke, 34, of Gaithersburg. Burke’s pit bull mix, Kobe, cut himself wrestling with another dog at a park and needed a chest X-ray, stitches and a stent to let the wound drain. “It was quite an ordeal,” she says. I also decided to get pet insurance. For $41 a month, my plan takes care of 90% of covered expenses after I pay the yearly $250 deductible. Plans vary, but they tend to mainly cover treatments for accidents and illnesses. I paid about $500 out of pocket the first year for checkups and vaccines.

Vigilance can help save money, according to longtime Bethesda veterinarian Charlie Weiss. He says dogs often end up at an emergency vet because they’ve eaten something that’s bad for them. Chocolate, raisins, grapes and sugarless gum with xylitol are particularly problematic, according to Weiss. (Before we got Mellie, I only knew about chocolate.) “Even one or two sticks of gum [with xylitol] can cause a small dog to go into liver failure,” he says. “You really have to dog-proof the environment.” We usually keep Mellie gated in the kitchen and dining room area or the office so we can keep an eye on her, but she’s speedy. So far, she’s enjoyed a protein bar, wrapper included, and old coffee.

That’s nothing like what Kerry Ryan’s dog has devoured. Despite baby gates, locks and latches, J.J., an 85-pound lab mix, has gotten sick at various times from eating eight boxes of Girl Scout cookies, a pound of flour, $80 worth of raw steak and some gross things he gobbled up outside. “Charges are about $700 to $900 when it’s bad enough that I have to take him to the vet,” says Ryan, 44. She’s made the trip three times since she got J.J. four years ago—her pet insurance covers some of the costs—and the dog hasn’t mellowed with age. “He just ate my lunch,” Ryan says.

Dogs can behave in ways that require adjustments, but some things just have to be accepted, Ramachandran says. Mellie doesn’t like to interact with anyone outside of her family, which Ramachandran told me is not a bad thing—it’s just her personality. “We see so many doodles around here, and they tend to be very happy and outgoing, but there are other dogs that are more like cats, more independent,” she says. I was surprised to get a dog that’s basically a cat. Mellie is friendly with us, but other people? Forget it. If they try to pet her, she’ll bark at them and retreat, even if they have treats. She is not much better with other dogs. Sometimes she will do a hello sniff to a small dog, but she really just likes the four of us and that’s it.

Mellie has been pretty reserved since day one, but dogs can also take a while to show their true personality. Camden, a Lab mix, was calm and timid when Rockville resident Liz Reinckens, 27, first brought her home from a rescue about a year ago. But soon she became a “wild woman,” Reinckens says as Camden does circle sprints in the backyard.
Reinckens and her boyfriend discovered that Camden has some greyhound in her and needs about three to four hours a day of activity, which they manage to fit in around their jobs.

“You may think [your new dog] is amazing when she is still sleeping off that shelter hangover, but once she settles in, a lot of behaviors can come out,” says trainer Kimmie Harlow, who lives in Rockville. “She may be like, my favorite thing to do is bark out the window all day long, or my vice is shredding pillows.”

Fortunately, Harlow says, there are strategies to help dogs with particularly troublesome behavior issues. Indoors, it can be helpful to set up an environment with activities that are reinforcing and entertaining, like food puzzles, bones and chew toys. “Before your dog thinks about doing the thing you don’t want her to do, give her five other options before she gets there,” Harlow says. “Anytime you see your dog doing something calm like lying down or playing with a toy, say ‘good girl’ and give a piece of kibble or a treat.” Harlow’s own dog, Nicky, a 60-pound pit bull mix, was sweet at the shelter, but when Harlow brought her home she would sometimes snap at people out of fear. “She is really smart—she can turn a light on—but she is also very nervous to where I have to pick her up to go past a storm drain,” Harlow says. In these instances, training, managing the environment and also medication can help. A Prozac-type drug called fluoxetine made a huge difference, Harlow says. “She is visibly less stressed, more willing to cuddle and less likely to bark at something right away.”

Having a dog is a lot. But after living with Mellie for more than a year, I’ve found that the bond we share outweighs any hassles. I hate to leave her. When possible, Brett or I work from home with Mellie, now 15 pounds, either tucked across the back of our chair like a lumbar support or draped across our laps with her butt hanging off the side. Or we take her with us. Last summer, she came on a family vacation to the Outer Banks. When we had to board her for a week in the winter, we spent half the time looking for her on the pet hotel’s webcam. She greets me with pure joy every time I come home, or even reenter the room after checking the mailbox. I imagine if she could speak she’d be yelling, “Yay, you’re back, you’re back! It’s been three minutes—why did it take you so long to come and see me again when I love you so?” as she wiggles, jumps, kisses and makes little squeaky noises of delight. And the first person to get Mellie out of her crate in the morning gets the full-blown lick attack. Eyeballs included.

Leah Ariniello is a science and health writer based in Bethesda.