Thinking about surprising a loved one with a dog for Christmas?
Be careful. I would know. I've done it.
Before I give you my listicle-worthy bullet points of wisdom, let me tell you a little about why I chose to surprise a loved one with a dog for Christmas. If you don't care about the back story, feel free to scroll down and miss the fun.
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My fiancee and I had just moved in together to a Florida apartment and she would not stop telling me how much she wanted a dog.
"How about this one?" she would say, turning the phone to a litter of German shepherds or yellow labs on Craigslist.
"No way," I would say.
First of all, I have a prejudice against German shepherds. A few years ago, while running off the stress of the day, a 100-pound police dog wannabe chased me down and bit me square on the butt. Second, I couldn't afford to shell out $800.
But she really wanted a dog. This is just a phase, I told myself.
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It wasn't. She really wanted a dog, and secretly, I kind of did too. I had grown up with fuzzy, awkward golden retrievers (pour one out for Deano and Zoe) and I loved them.
One day, when my fiancee was showing me a picture of Dallas, a Shiba Inu mix cuddling and playing with a trainer at the local shelter, I burst out in laughter, cackling shamelessly in her face.
Guys, gals — I probably don't have to tell you this, but don't laugh in your loved one's face when they tell you they want something. It doesn't end well.
I wasn't trying to mess with her. I had been sneaking off to the shelter to look at dogs. When I came across Dallas, it lurched at the chain-link fence, teeth chomping like an over-caffeinated bear trap. I jumped back and literally screamed in the middle of the dog shelter.
"Oh, she just doesn't like men," the shelter staff told me.
Good to know.
I moved on to other dogs, playing close-range fetch with stocky slobber machines and pity-petting geriatric pooches that had weird elbows. I prepared to cut my losses and took one more lap around the dog kennels. I stopped by what I thought was a puppy, curled up in the corner and one of the few dogs not barking.
"That's Baby Girl," a staff member told me. "I'm not sure why she hasn't been adopted yet. She's so sweet."
Baby Girl was a 4-year-old rescue from the streets of Miami. She was shy, but cuddly; comfortable around people, but not other dogs; gentle, but protective. With a chipped tooth, a giraffe neck and bat ears, people tended to walk by the oddly proportioned yet adorable 40-pound pit bull mix. I fell in love with her right away.
A few days later, I adopted her, and surprised my fiancee with a Christmas dog.
Her first reaction: I love it!
Second reaction: Let's name her Ella.
Third reaction: We're never gonna get an apartment with a pit mix.
The next six months: I wanted a say in this.
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Today, my fiancee and Ella are inseparable. But the first few months were tough, and I would have done a few things differently if I could go back. Without further ado, here is the listicle you came here for. Here is my advice to people considering whether to get a dog for a loved one for Christmas:
Try before you buy
As I learned with hellhound murder dog Dallas, looks can be deceiving. A dog that looks sweet in a picture or video might be actively plotting to kill you.
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Let your loved one have a say
This is tricky, especially if you are planning on a surprise, but surprising someone with a dog they didn't choose could feel more like a burden than a gift. You can still surprise him or her, just say you're taking her to see the new Sharknado movie or something else guaranteed to ruin the rest of the weekend. Then, drive straight to the shelter and tell your loved one you found a dog they might like.
Go to the shelter
Before you accuse me of channeling my inner Sarah McLachlan, choosing a shelter dog is not about fighting off tears every time an ASPCA commercial interrupts your marathon of Gossip Girl.
For one, it's cheaper. The animal shelter in Columbia, S.C., for example charges only $35 for dog and cat adoptions, according to its website. It's also offering a $25 "Home for the Holidays" adoption special through December.
Two, someone has already interacted with that dog who doesn't have a financial stake in whether or not you adopt. I have often found the staff at shelters to be forthcoming when talking about a dog's strengths and weaknesses.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
If you do choose to show up at the door with a surprise dog for your loved one, make sure you know exactly what he or she wants. In my case, I knew my fiancee wanted her dog to be medium-size, well-behaved, quiet, gentle and obedient. The only reason Ella worked for us is because I got as close to those criteria as I could. If I had guessed and got her some monster — like, I don't know, Dallas — I guarantee one of us would have moved out already.
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Make sure you budget for dog accessories
You can expect to spend $100-$200 on a collar, leash, dog bowls, heartworm medicine, food, treats and lots of toys for your dog to shred all over the floor. It's not much of a Christmas gift if your loved one is immediately obliged to spend $150 of his or her own money.
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Learn how to train a dog
If you've never trained a dog before, you're probably doing it wrong. When I first got Ella, she would shake and panic when she saw other dogs. After a few sessions with a trainer, some diligent training, and plenty of doggy socializing, Ella no longer panics at the sight of other dogs. Rather, she sprints full-speed at them and gives them a friendly body slam before sniffing their rear ends. Trust me, it's progress.
This isn't about you
The best and worst thing I did when picking out a dog was getting attached before I brought it home. On one hand, I already liked Ella. I didn't need time to warm up to her. But my fiancee did, and it was her gift. So, at first, it caused us some stress. I had made a major life decision for us without consulting her. I'm glad everything worked out, but in retrospect I would probably go with the Sharknado play action fake.