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The Right Time to Get a New Dog

July 14, 2014

By Amy Sinatra Ayres
Photo by zolakoma/Flickr

The Thompson family fell in love with their rescue puppy, Baxter, as soon as they met him. But adopting Baxter was no easy decision: After losing the second of their two German Shepherds, it took the family four years to get to a point where they could imagine getting another dog.

Sally, a black and tan Shepherd they’d had since puppyhood, died at age 13; she had nerve degeneration in her hind legs that progressed quickly. Tai, a white Shepherd they’d adopted not long after getting Sally, had passed away a year earlier, at 12, after a more prolonged decline caused by dementia.

For Jane Thompson, it was the emotional part of losing Sally - to whom she felt more connected - that made it tough to think about moving on. “Whatever pet we get, it’s not going to be Sally,” she remembers thinking. “What I really want is her.”

Her husband, Billy, was “down and out,” she says. Although he’d always had a dog, he was worn out from the walks in the heat, rain and snow; the shedding that comes with two Shepherds; and coping with the dogs’ declining health, especially with two young children.

It looked like the Thompsons were done with dogs.

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But four years after Sally’s death, the Thompsons started to reconsider. They always knew they wanted their children to grow up with pets - and they knew that their 5-year-old daughter, an animal lover, would adore having a dog. One night in February, they took a look at the website for their local shelter. Two days later, they brought 9-month-old Baxter, a Doberman mix, home.

"I think we were more ready than we realized we were," Jane Thompson says.

When you lose a dog, the first question many people ask you is, “When are you getting another one?” But deciding to get a new pet can take awhile - and the right time is different for everyone.

Needing a Break

No one would ever stand at a funeral after someone’s spouse died and ask when they planned to remarry, says Coleen Ellis of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center in Indiana. But it’s a question commonly posed to pet owners after a loss.

Though for some people it can be therapeutic to get a new dog right away - or even before their older dog passes - many pet owners need time to adjust.

"It’s very, very difficult to know when it’s a good time," says Linda Lawrence, veterinary social work services coordinator and leader of the pet loss support group at Michigan State University’s Veterinary Medical Center.

There are many reasons for needing to take a break, including grief, guilt about the pet’s death, feeling like you would be cheating on your late pet, lifestyle changes since you first got your pet, and even a desire to do the things you may have put off while caring for a sick or elderly animal, like traveling.

"Some people have a terminally ill pet they’ve been dealing with for a very, very long time," and they may need some space after that, Ellis says.

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Finding the Right Time

How do you know when it’s time for a new pet? “It’s so individual. It depends on what’s happening in your life,” says Jennifer Scarlett, DVM, co-president of the San Francisco SPCA. “The easiest place to start is with the logistics: Where am I in my life? Do I have time to train and socialize a puppy?

"The harder part is dealing with your heart," Scarlett adds, admitting that it was seven years after the death of her first dog before she got another. Between her second and third dogs, though, only a year passed.

And there are pet owners who never get another pet. In some cases it’s because they think they’re getting too old to care for a pet, while others just don’t think they could handle another devastating loss.

"It’s kind of like [romantic] love in a way, because there are people who swear off it," Dr. Scarlett says. "It’s kind of like having your heart broken."

Comparing the New and Old

Experts agree that getting a new dog before you’re ready can make things hard on everyone - including the dog.

"If they’re trying to replace the animal whom they lost too early, they are going to be disappointed in that new animal," Lawrence says. "I’ve had a couple of people who’ve gotten them too early and they’ve actually been very angry at the new dog."

Lawrence recommends choosing a different breed to avoid comparisons. “If it’s the same breed and looks the same, you expect the same things.”

Ellis explains that it’s normal to compare your new dog to the old one - as long as it’s in a healthy way. “When we get another little being to come into our home, it’s like having a second child,” Ellis says. “We don’t have a second child to be just like the first child.”

Not every comparison is bad, though. Jane Thompson finds herself comparing Baxter with Sally and Tai in a favorable way. “He’s a much better-behaved dog. He’s certainly not perfect - he just picked up my shoe and wanted to eat it,” she says with a laugh. “But overall he’s been a much easier dog.”

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