(MNN.com) -- If you've got visions of a puppy wiggling under the Christmas tree this year, hold on a second. First, resist the urge to surprise your family with a cute and cuddly pet. To ensure a smooth transition, discuss routine tasks beforehand such as feeding, grooming, getting home to let the dog out, and poop patrol. If you absolutely, positively must have a puppy or kitten under the tree, then consider this your holiday pet to-do list.
Find the best match for your family
Create a detailed list of qualities you want in a pet, including coat length, size and temperament. All of these factors impact the amount of grooming and exercise necessary for a happy and healthy pet.
"Don't just base your decision on looks," warns Chris Redenbach, a certified dog behavior consultant and director of Park Training Academy in Tucker, Georgia.
"If all [visitors] have free access to your house, it's not a good idea to get a rottweiler or German shepherd or Bouvier des Flandres or other guarding breed — they will be confused and find it hard to cope with the home being Grand Central Station," she says. "But if you live a private lifestyle and want a dog that's protective, then you may want to look into that breed."
Redenbach tells families to begin their search using the American Kennel Club website, which lists detailed information on more than 150 breeds, as well as the websites for breed-specific national clubs. Even if you get a mixed breed, knowing behavior traits will help identify the best option for your family. Dog shows, dog parks and a walk through your local animal shelter also allow you to get up close and personal. To identify complimentary personality traits, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) created a "Canine-ality Assessment" that groups breeds into color-coded categories, ranging from "Couch Potato" to "Free Spirit."
Consider the source
While the Internet can significantly streamline your search for a new pet, avoid pressing the "Buy Now" button before seeing and handling any pet. NBC news recently investigated complaints about an online retailer that promised healthy pups from responsible local breeders. Instead, it delivered sick dogs housed in unhealthy conditions at a large-scale commercial breeding company, also known as a puppy mill.
"If you buy from a source you haven't done research on, the risk of health ailments and behavioral problems do not go down; if anything, they go up," says Cori Menkin, senior director of the ASPCA's Puppy Mills Campaign, which urges people to avoid any bricks-and-mortar or online retailer that sell puppies. "About 99 percent of puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills. If you are in the market, make adoption an option and visit a shelter or go directly to a breeder."
It pays to vet your pet
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make sure that your prospective pet has a clean bill of health. Most animal shelters and rescue groups perform thorough exams on pets prior to adoption. Many even spay or neuter and implant a microchip, which saves money and helps to ensure that your new pet has a healthy start.
"There is a huge problem of shelter puppies coming down with parvo and distemper within a week of going to their new home because of exposure to the disease in a public shelter combined with the stress of being there," Redenbach warns.
Schedule a thorough veterinary exam, complete with vaccinations before bringing your new pet home to the family.
Make the search a family affair
Since everyone in the family will care for the new addition, let everyone participate in the search by visiting animal shelters and rescue organizations. In addition to adoption fairs, many rescue groups also conduct home visits that include the prospective pet.
"The last thing we want is for anyone to get a pet on impulse," says Susan Leisure, executive director of Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends (AARF). "It may seem like a small dog, then you get home and it takes up the whole couch. The [home] visit is as much for us to check out the home as it is for the potential adopter to get to know the pet."
You also can purchase a gift certificate for pet adoption, or create a gift basket, complete with collar, leash and pet toys. "Go together to pick out a pet," she says. "Then the person gets a pet they want, not the gift you think they should have."
Heart set on one breed? Check animal shelters
Animal shelters and rescue groups have no shortage of purebred dogs that result from owner surrender or even puppy mill raids. About 30 percent of all shelter pets are purebred, says Cathy Sleva, senior vice president of development with the Atlanta Humane Society (AHS), one of the city's oldest and largest private charitable organizations. Stroll through AHS, and you will find an assortment that includes dachshunds, poodles and rat terriers.
"You are not going to get papers on them, and you wont be able to breed them because we spay or neuter, but quite a few are purebred," says Sleva, who notes that demand definitely rises around the holidays, particularly for kittens and puppies. "A lot of parents and grandparents like to get their children and grandchildren a pet for Christmas. We don't discourage that, but we ask that they give it a lot of thought and it's not an impulse gift."
Seek references for a reputable breeder
If you decide to purchase a purebred, visit national breed club sites (Google "American XX Club") to get a referral in your area. Menkin of the ASPCA also recommends visiting dog parks and seeking word-of-mouth recommendations. Once you find a reputable breeder, check out the mother and the puppies.
"A reputable breeder wants to make sure the dogs are going to good home," she says. "If they will ship without seeing you, it's a huge red flag."
In addition to training dogs, Redenbach also breeds Bouvier des Flanders, a working dog known for being a good guardian. Before selling a puppy, she conducts several in-depth interviews with prospective owners to be sure they understand the time investment that Bouviers require. In addition to weekly grooming, Bouviers also require early and ongoing training through adolescence.
"It's definitely not a breed for everyone," says Redenbach, who has produced only three litters in six years. "I feel ultra responsible for the dogs that I breed because I'm the one who brought them onto this earth, and I know a lot of breeders who feel that way. I turn down about two-thirds of potential buyers as unsuitable for my particular dogs. I will keep a dog before I will let it go to a home that I don't feel is quite right."
Redenbach says that reputable breeders focus on producing the best example of a breed, particularly with respect to health and temperament. All responsible breeders will invest in genetic tests to ensure that parents do not show evidence of certain health issues. WebMD offers a list of 25 popular breeds along with common health issues. For example, bulldogs are notorious for having respiratory problems, while German shepherds are prone to hip dysplasia.
As part of the interview process, ask breeders whether they conduct genetic testing, and check out those certification papers. It also helps to find a breeder who will stay in touch, just in case you have questions.
"Most genetic problems don't exhibit themselves in puppies; most develop as the dog matures," Redenbach warns. "Testing the parents doesn't guarantee that a genetic problem won't occur, but it guarantees that the breeder has done all they can to avert the problem."
Heart problems and juvenile cataracts are common genetic problems for Bouviers, so Redenbach ensures that the puppies she sells do not have signs of those issues. She also tests for other health problems such as thyroid conditions and suggests that prospective pet owners ask breeders detailed questions about testing.
"I want [clients] to know what they are getting into," Redenbach says. "When you get a pup from me, I become part of your family, to support and advise you in raising the pup as well as checking up on its welfare."
Consider a breed-specific rescue
Breed-specific rescue groups provide another option to get the pet you want. Rescue groups often pull purebred dogs from animal shelters. Volunteers who manage breed-specific rescue organizations know the breed and take great measures to find appropriate forever homes. Finding and adopting the pet of your dreams may take time, particularly if the breed is in high demand. You also should have a working knowledge of the breed.
Bulldogs now rank No. 6 on the AKC list of most popular breeds, so Georgia English Bulldog Rescue (GEBR) has no shortage of applicants seeking a cute and cuddly family pet, particularly during the holidays. The organization's website carefully details the adoption process and rules out anyone who has not done their homework about the breed. A page called "English Bullies 101" explains routine tasks such as cleaning those facial folds or tail pockets and treating skin irritation, which is common for the breed. GEBR Director Ruthann Phillips also uses two simple questions to weed out prospective pet owners.
"I ask, 'How much do you expect to spend on this dog per year, and how much will you spend in an emergency situation?'" Phillips says, noting that bulldogs are prone to respiratory issues and grain allergies that can lead to steep veterinary bills. "You probably can expect to spend about $500 a year or more on a dog from a reputable breeder. For a poorly bred English bulldog, expect to spend $1,500 to $2,000."
Invest in training
Since Redenbach has plenty of experience training pets, she has implemented a "Christmas puppy workshop" at Park Training academy. It's a chance for new owners to learn about crate and potty training, puppy nipping and self-control.
She also has a solution to avoid arguments over who gets to scoop the poop on Christmas morning.
"Get a stuffed animal and put it under tree, then get the puppy when the holidays are over," she says. "A puppy is such a delicate creature that has only been on the face of the earth for two months; bringing them into the home during the most stressful time of the year, when everyone is on an emotional roller coaster, is too much chaos. It's best to start things off on the right foot."
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