A dog with big, adorable puppy eyes and a bright red ribbon around its neck sure seems like the perfect holiday gift. We’ve all been moved by videos of kids bursting into tears of joy upon being given a puppy. Dogs can bring so much joy to a family— they’ve been known to lower stress and increase opportunities for fitness and socialization. But is your family ready for the responsibility? Read on to learn what to look for before you start searching for that terrier.


Unlike that new gadget or sports equipment that makes its way to the bottom of the toy shelf once the initial excitement wears off, you’ll still have a living creature that needs your time, care and interest. “Parents should understand they may be the primary caregiver of this animal and not expect to rely on the children,” says Jill Van Tuyl, director of Shelter Operations at SAVE, a nonprofit animal shelter in Skillman. “Pets are a lifetime commitment,” she cautions. She recommends offering to take care of a neighbor’s dog, volunteering at a local shelter or fostering a shelter pet before taking the leap to dog ownership. If you aren’t ready to commit to a dog, consider other options like a cat, guinea pig or fish, which also teach responsibility but aren’t as much work as a dog.


Choosing the right dog for your family is an important consideration. For example, if you’re thinking about an excitable little pup, make sure that level of energy gels with your family’s lifestyle. “We counsel families in choosing a pet that fits their lifestyle, not what the pet looks like. Stay open-minded and not focused on breed types, appearances or age,” says Van Tuyl.


“If parents are fortunate enough to have time off around the holidays, it would be helpful to take the new puppy for his vaccines and training classes,” says Katharine Anneback, DVM, an emergency veterinarian at Animal Emergency & Referral Associates (AERA) in Fairfield. “Before jumping into training classes, make sure your puppy is fully vaccinated, and speak to your veterinarian about finding a reputable trainer.” Anneback notes that if there are already other pets in the household, it’s important to give them time to acclimate to the new family member. An older dog may appreciate some alone time with you and like a place to rest where he won’t be disturbed.


You’ll want to make sure you have all of the necessary equipment for your new dog ahead of time, including leashes, water and food dishes, a crate, dog bed, toys and food. Because it’s the holidays, there are some hazards to consider. “Seasonal plants, food, wrapping paper and toys should be kept away from the new family member,” says Anneback. “Puppies are similar in mental age to human toddlers and require a good amount of supervision, training and attention that may be in short supply during the holidays.”


Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of understanding that a dog isn’t a gift to be given lightly. Cute puppies quickly turn into dogs that need resources, time and love, even after their peak cuteness fades. Still, for some families, the holidays can be a great time to welcome a dog in a thoughtful manner.

“Many families take extra time off over the holidays when schools are closed and have a nice block of time available to help a new pet get adjusted to its new home,” says Nora J. Parker, goodwill ambassador at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, located throughout New Jersey.

“Since 2014, St. Hubert’s has been doing ‘Santa deliveries’ of pets to their new homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas. All the normal conditions of adoption apply.” With planning and forethought, welcoming a dog home for the holidays can create lasting memories for parents and kids alike. Just make sure to get your kid’s reaction on camera!


Adopting a pet from a shelter is a fantastic thing, but is it right for you? “There are plenty of wonderful pets waiting at shelters— animals of all breeds, sizes and ages,” says Van Tuyl. “Many of them are already house-trained.” Parents may also be surprised to find there are plenty of purebred dogs and cats waiting to be adopted at an animal shelter. Shelter pets come fully vetted—they’re often spayed or neutered and have all their vaccines. Some shelters even provide a microchip and tags.

Van Tuyl says the best part of adopting a shelter pet, besides the years of long walks, cuddles and companionship, is the effect it has on the animal population. “By adopting a shelter pet, you save not only one life but two—the pet you adopt and the pet who takes its place.”

Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer living in Princeton with her husband and twins. Her first romance novel will be published by Harlequin next spring. Follow her on Instagram @theronniekoenig.