A Dog Is For Life, Not Just for Christmas" must be the most successful slogan ever in the animal welfare world. A registered trademark of the Dogs Trust charity, the phrase was coined nearly forty years ago by Clarissa Baldwin, the former Chief Executive.
At that time, in 1978, around 20 per cent of all dogs were given as presents: the Dogs Trust campaign has been so successful that this figure is now less than 2 per cent.
Cute puppies make people happy so why not give one as a gift?
You may ask: “What's wrong with giving a puppy as a present?” A new dog can be expensive, and if your child/spouse/friend wants one, why not given them what they want during this gift-giving season?
As a vet in practice, I still see this happen every year. In the week between Christmas and New Year, people arrive at my clinic clutching fluffy bundles of puppyness.
Of course it's charming and delightful. But in one or two month's time, the problems start.
Out-of-control adolescent dogs don't make anyone happy
A pet in an inappropriate home can cause life-changing issues, for animals and people. The three most common behavioural problems in dogs are messing in the house (“Inappropriate elimination”), over-excitable behaviour (such as jumping up or pulling on the lead) and excessive barking.
These problems are largely preventable: you need to choose the right breed, train your dog properly from the start and have a consistent daily routine of activity including exercise.
But if someone is given a dog as a gift, and a few months later, their life is beginning to be dominated by stress linked to these problems, you can understand why it's so common for such dogs to be dumped as they develop into troublesome adolescents.
The answer? Preventing behavioural issues
If you choose a new dog yourself, you go into the situation with your eyes wide open: you select an appropriate breed or type, you plan your new arrival's socialisation and training from the start, and you know in advance about your own daily timetable, factoring in the need for dog-walking and training time. If you choose a dog for someone else, as a gift, it's far more difficult to tick these boxes.
Another issue with the “pup as a gift” concept is that – almost by definition – it pushes people towards choosing a puppy-farm type cute and cuddly creature. Yet if you talk to experienced people in the dog world, you soon discover that it makes far more sense to take on a rescued dog from an animal welfare centre.
It's better value (the new animal is spayed/vaccinated/microchipped/wormed already), and you get experienced advice on pet care from the rescue group.
Rescue pets need better PR
Many novice owners have preconceptions about rescue pets: they worry that such animals will have serious behavioural issues that caused them to be rejected by earlier homes.
In fact, most rescue pets are abandoned for random reasons to do with human factors rather than for anything specific about the animals themselves.
I'm often astonished at the placid, gentle faithfulness and companionship shown by many rescue pets: given their history of rejection by humans, you might not expect this.
The main aim of rescue centres is to find new homes that work out well: it's not in their interest to place a dog in a home that does not work out.
If you want the right pet for your own situation, a detailed discussion with a good rescue centre is often be the best way to find a new friend.
Still tempted to give a pup as a present? Give a dog basket or bowl instead
If you feel overcome with the desire to give a pup at Christmas, please resist this temptation. Instead, buy a pet book, a dog basket, a cute dog bowl, dog treats, or other markers that send out the message that “a new dog is on the way”.
Then after Christmas, talk to your local dog rescue centre, accompanied by the would-be recipient of your gift. After all, it's for life, not just for Christmas, so you need to do everything possible to get it right.