Auntie MJ, I want a dog. However, I live in New York City and everything I know about dogs tells me this is a terrible idea. Can you give me some tips about raising dogs in NYC? Thanks!
You have touched Auntie MJ’s heart. Seriously. THAT THING YOU HAVE YOUR HAND ON IS MY ACTUAL CARDIAC ORGAN. You seem aware that I know something about this as I a) live in New York and b) have a dog. My advice is going to be tailored to the specifics of raising a dog in NYC, but I think much of it will be applicable to those outside as well.
HOW TO RAISE A DOG IN NEW YORK CITY
1. Rescue: rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue rescue. Did I say rescue? Because I meant to.
This city is full of dogs that need good homes, right now. The Rescue Waggin brings thousands of dogs to the city each year. If you don’t know about the Rescue Waggin…this is an organization that brings animals from parts of the country that have too many stray and unwanted animals and have to euthanize these healthy animals due to lack of room and resources. Recue Waggin brings the animals to areas where people will adopt them, or where there are no-kill shelters that will harbor them as long as necessary. This is a video about the organization. I SUGGEST YOU WATCH because it is GREAT:
This is how I got my Zelda. She came from a shelter in Tennessee at just eight weeks old. She weighed only four pounds at the time. She was so small that she thought she was a Dachshund. She had a digestive disorder at the time, which likely was not known about, so she was severely undernourished. We found her at a Rescue Waggin event on a summer afternoon. There was another puppy sitting on her. You could barely see her. When we picked her up, she slept in our arms the whole time. Her little body was exhausted, but she had made it to NYC.
Zelda, five minutes after we met her. She is being held by Oscar, my OTHER HALF.
I fell in love with her on the spot. So did Oscar. We knew this was our dog. Something about her caused me to feel a true, deep love that was forged out of ULTIMATE STEEL. NO ONE ELSE WAS GOING TO GET MY DOG. So I kept walking with her so no one could see her or try to take her. I hid in the bird food aisle with her and made her a binding promise that I was going to take her home and everything was going to be okay. I didn’t even let the rescue organization take her back until they had given me an application, taken my phone number, memorized my name and face, and basically promised me that they would contact me.
I spent the next two days bombarding the rescue organization with emails and applications. I completely cleaned and puppy-proofed the house. I bought her toys and food and set these out on display. I took up the carpet in my office and made a three-layer surface of plastic, tarp, and blankets, which I then surrounded with plastic baby gates so she could have a safe play area.
The play area I built for Zelda before she was even ours.
When they finally called me two days later, slightly terrified by the dozens of messages I had left for them. When they requested a home visit, I WAS READY. They said they had never seen someone so ready. I smiled. I WAS JUST THAT READY. We got a call an hour later that she would be ours, and we would be able to get her from her foster mother’s house soon. We ran to the pet store, grabbed a cart, and started buying EVERYTHING IN SIGHT that we thought we would need. We got a call in the pet store (it was now10pm) that we could go and pick her up, so we can outside with the many things we had purchased, threw them all in a cab, and went to Brooklyn. The cab got lost three times, but we finally found our way, and at 11pm, this tiny, tiny puppy (who was still asleep) was put in my arms and I said to her, “I told you, puppy. We came for you. Everything’s going to be okay now. You are going home. Everything is ready for you.”
2. YOU WILL NOT BE READY
Yeah, forget all that stuff about being ready, because you’re not going to be ready, but that’s fine. Zelda thought the playpen was weird and made tiny yipping noises every time I put in her it and walked away for 30 seconds, so basically I carried around a tiny puppy for about five weeks. She preferred my lap to all other places, or sniffing the living room rug. She hadn’t had all of her shots yet, so she couldn’t walk outside, so we used weewee pads, which she was pretty good with. I would carry her outside each day so she would get used to the noises. “That’s a fire truck,” I’d say. “That’s a fountain.” “That’s the woman from my old building. She’s very mean. When you are bigger, maybe you can bite her, but don’t, mommy is kidding but not really.”
Listen, your dog is going to go through your stuff and teach you the True Value of Everything. They will pee on the floor while they are learning where to go to the bathroom. When they are teething, their teeth are little tiny hypodermic needles and they will put them in EVERYTHING, and you’ll have to spray everything with this Bitter Apple crap that half of them don’t even care about. And they’ll take on anything. Zelda’s favorite teething toys were the metal legs of our dining room chairs. They will make noises in the night and you will get up to see what is wrong, and sometimes it is just that they are awake and wanted to see you, and you will have to decide whether or not to get them out for a cuddle (my frequent approach) or leave them in bed so they learn to settle (what you are generally supposed to do). You will lose sleep and become convinced you have ruined your life. You will love it. Look, you can get new crap. Or you can use the things with the teeth marks. It doesn’t matter.
Nothing Zelda liked better than a metal chair leg.
3. GET PET INSURANCE
Do this on day one! DAY ONE. I did this on DAY ONE and it has literally saved me thousands and probably Zelda’s life. It has paid for itself 10-15 times over. I use Petplan, but shop around and see what is good for you. Zelda’s digestion issues meant that for months, she wasn’t able to process food. For months I sat on the floor, holding her, looking at her little ribs and her spine. “You are going to grow, little puppy,” I said. “We will figure it out.” It was months of going to the vet, and then cooking food for her, and isolating proteins, and working out combinations, and getting up in the night with her when she was ill. It took five months. Our tiny, tired four pound puppy grew into a 45 pound, bouncing, long-legged, muscle-packed powerhouse. She can run the length of the building in about five seconds. She still believes she is four pounds.
She started small...
...and we were forced to admit she was not a Dachshund.
4. IF ONE VET DOESN'T WORK, TRY ANOTHER
Seriously. Never give up if you pet has a condition. We take Zelda to the Animal Medical Center, which is probably the best facility in the city. They saved her life. They fixed her in a few weeks. THEY TAKE PET INSURANCE. Your dog may not be sick, but all dogs need a good vet and they are amazing.
5. “BUT MY APARTMENT IS TOO SMALL”
All of our apartments are too small. We live in New York. We’re idiots. We live in tiny ferret-holes. But you know what? When you rescue (see point one), you are giving a dog a home. Prior to that, the dog will be living in a shelter or maybe a small crate, so your apartment is a great place. It is home. Your dog will never judge you about the size of the apartment. Your dog will say “I love you” every day. You will give up space on your sofa, on your bed, on your futon, on your tiny amount of floor, in your tiny kitchen. It is okay. You will be glad you did. You had too much space anyway and you just never knew it.
6. HIDE YOUR SHOES
Just do that now. You will need to find the Secret Places in your apartment where the NO NO things can go. Shoes are pretty much the number one target so never leave them out. There are going to be a lot of NO NO things your dog will want to take a closer tooth examination of. The top of the fridge is very good for hiding these things. The top of cabinets. Drawers. Your pockets. I have shoved things down the front of my shirt and into my bra when necessary.
7. EVERYTHING ON THE GROUND IS DISGUSTING
Before I had a dog, I never paid much attention to the ground in New York. Now I am an expert. All dog owners are. We know every inch of the ground near where we live, and we know it’s largely awful. You would not believe the things on the ground here and the things you may have to remove from your dog’s mouth, if you dog is anything like Zelda, who will try to pick up anything. (Including hypodermic needles. And poop. Oh, the poop I have seen.) This will freak you out at first and then you won’t even care. I think this is how doctors and nurses must feel the first time in their training they see a human liver on the floor or something and they go “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING LOOK AT IT” and then later they don’t even care and they’ll play human liver kickball with it. (I assume this is how these things work.)
Wipe their paws when they get inside because seriously. We live in a plague zone.
8. A LOT OF YOUR TIME WILL BE SPENT LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT POOPING SPOT, AND BECAUSE OF THIS YOU WILL GET TO KNOW YOUR CITY IN A NEW WAY
Dogs are super choosy about where they poop. You don’t realize this until you get a dog, because it seems like they will poop absolutely anywhere, but they have a system and they are not telling what that system is but THEY HAVE A SYSTEM. So you will spend a lot of time noodling around while your dog circles and sniffs and says, “Not here, not here, no, not here, not here. Here? No. Not here. Not here, not here, not here.”
This is actually a very meditative activity. We spend a lot of time in New York walking along very fast, talking on phones, not taking anything in. You are going to take that spot in for quite a while, probably on a daily basis. You’re going to look at a bit of fence, or a patch of dirt, or the rocks by the bench, and you will get to know them well. You’ll begin to appreciate strange, subtle differences in the color of the pavement when it is wet and dry. You just have to stay with the activity. This is good for you.
9. DOG PARKS ARE GREAT BUT KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
New York has many wonderful dog parks! There is probably one close to you. Dogs here are social creatures, and they will make dog park friends. But keep your eyes open in the dog park—don’t just sit and stare at your phone. There’s often one weird dog in there. Just stay alert and stick with your dog—at least keep eyes on your dog. Dog parks also have different elements. Some have sand or dirt. Some are cobbled. Some have small dog areas and some do not. If you have more than one dog park around, check them all out and see which one is right for you and your dog.
10. YOU WILL BE INDUCTED INTO A SECRET CLUB
Once you have a dog, your dog will try to make contact with other dogs, and you will end up talking to the other dog’s owner. Often, New Yorkers do not talk to the other people on the street. This is because we know that people who talk to us on the street are Trouble. They want to sell us tickets to a comedy club or get a weird haircut or scream obscenities at us. When you try to approach a New Yorker for a chat, we blow the vuvuzela we wear around our necks, swat at you with a badminton racket, and take a screaming leap into oncoming traffic.
And then you get a dog and suddenly you’re bizarro New York where you end up talking to everyone who has a dog. You will suddenly know the names of dozens of dogs and MAYBE EVEN PEOPLE. Dog club is real.
10. WEIRDOS WILL COME UP TO YOUR TO PET YOUR DOG
I used to be one of these weirdos. It’s usually okay, but if you have a bad feeling, just take your dog and go. It’s your prerogative. Your dog will probably hang out with anyone, even if they are drunk and carrying a sword (actual occurrence I have experienced). Drunk people ALL want to pet your dog. Randos and freaks of all stripes want to pet your dog. You have to be the judge of what is okay. It usually is but again—this is your call.
11. THIS IS GOING TO COST YOU MONEY, BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO COST CRAZY MONEY
Dogs need food, a home, and you. They will also need to go to the vet for shots and if they are ill (see point three). They need toys, but they will show as much love to an old tennis ball as they will to something that costs ten times as much. They will need something on their feet in the winter to protect them from salt. You have probably seen the booties. We use the ones that look like little balloons. You can use those over and over—we are still using a pack we bought last year. You will hear varying reports on how dogs tolerate the booties. Zelda doesn’t mind them. When we put them on her, we tell her we are bagging her paws as evidence. A coat can be useful in the cold or rain, but these are not necessarily expensive. (I think Zelda’s cost $25 and it was used every single day of the winter.) They need to go for walks. You may have to invest in a dog walker or daycare, but again, this expense can be worked out. Maybe a trusted neighbor can help? (EMPHASIS ON TRUSTED.) You want to do your research on any walkers or caregivers. Don’t just let anyone do this. This can end up being the thing that costs the most, but many professional services do joint walks, which cost less. Daycare centers often have packages you can buy. Maybe you can get home at lunch to do the walk. You work it out, you really do. Look around—there are loads of dogs in New York, and all of the people with the dogs have worked it out somehow. There are ways.
12. THERE ARE NO BAD DOGS
When you rescue your dog (see point one), you will learn a lot of things. You will hear about dogs who were removed from fighting rings, dogs thrown from moving cars, dogs found chained to railings and heaters, dogs found in parking lots, dogs left in abandoned apartments. Humans do many terrible things to dogs, but there are no bad dogs. Some dogs have been hurt and abused and yet they will still come up to you and put their head on your knee. Some may be scared at first. No dog is born wanting to do harm. Dogs look up to us—literally, you will often just see them looking up at us. Sometimes we fail them, but they never fail us.
Yes, this means that some dogs have strange behaviors. Who doesn’t? Yes, it means that you invited a poop-obsessed stranger to come live with you—but that poop-obsessed stranger will be your best friend. They will rest by your side and sigh deeply. They will scratch and show you their belly and bark at things you can’t hear, but they can. They will look out for you. They will love you. They are sorry about the shoes but they smelled like you, and you are great.
There are no bad dogs. Living in New York with a dog is crazy and weird and occasionally hard, and I love her with every fiber of my being. Life without her was stupid.
#askauntiemj is put out each week on Wednesdays, whether you like it or not. You can visit Auntie MJ at her website, www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com or on Twitter @maureenjohnson. But only if you feel like it.