Want To Bring a Big Dog Home? Here's Everything You Need To Know
An animal behaviorist and a vet break it all down.
Getting a dog is a major life change that's not unlike welcoming a baby, especially if you're bringing home a puppy. There's a lot to consider and prepare for, and the whole house will need to be on board for your furry new addition.
If your brood has their hearts set on a big dog, well, you've got even more to think about. I know from hard-won first-hand experience that big dogs have big needs, and you owe it to your new family member to be up for the task. So, what should you know before you bring home the adorable pup with the big eyes (and bigger paws)?
An animal behaviorist and a veterinarian broke it all down for us, so you can have the info I wish I had when I brought home my beloved Bernedoodle, Bruce Wayne.
Big Puppy Energy
Before I adopted my pup, I knew next to nothing about poodle mixes, simply wanting a giant teddy bear to snuggle and take walks with. So when I spotted this adorable, eight-week-old Bernedoodle on Petfinder, the rescue noted that he would be 80-90 pounds fully grown, and I thought that would take a long time to actually happen.
So, imagine my surprise when my bouncing bundle of joy became too heavy for me to comfortably carry within months of bringing him home — a normal occurrence, says PetMeds partner Dr. Lindsay Butzer, DVM.
"Generally speaking, large breed dogs can take anywhere from 12-24 months to reach their full adult size, with most reaching their adult height by around 12 months and their full adult weight by around 18-24 months," says Butzer. "However, the rate at which they grow can vary depending on the breed and genetics," with applied animal behaviorist and founder of Paws for Thought Dog Training Maddie Messina, MA, CPDT-KA adding that the age at which they are spayed/neutered and the nutrient availability in the food they're eating can also impact growth.
Even if you're OK with it in theory, it's worth noting that you will have a fully-grown dog with ample puppy energy. That means you'll need to be properly training your new pup from the moment you bring them home, says Messina: "A large or giant breed in the adolescent stage can get into trouble very easily because of their size. It's important to remember they are still not adult dogs despite their large size."
You will need to be vigilant 100% of the time, especially if you have kids, to ensure your puppy won't get into food or chew on household items your little ones might leave behind. "Punishment is not necessary to train large dogs. Instead, the owner is going to have to come up with creative management solutions to keep the dog away from things they shouldn't be getting into. Enlisting a trainer from an early age can help prepare the guardian for what to expect, teach the guardian important management tactics, and begin laying the foundation for skills that will keep everyone safe around a large dog."
"Training a large breed puppy requires patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement," adds Butzer. "It's important to start training early and socialize the puppy with people and other animals to prevent aggression and anxiety while they are a small size. Once your large breed is too big, strong, and stubborn, you may have difficulty training them."
Big Paws, Big Responsibilities
Doing a lot of research before you bring home a big dog is crucial. Don't do what I did and just apply for every dog you (or your kids!) think is cute. For instance, I was told that doodle breeds are hypoallergenic and non-shedding, but the truth is that there's no truly hypoallergenic dog breed, and many factors determine whether or not your pup will be a shedder.
"If someone wants to get a big dog, their first steps should be to research different breeds and determine which one would be the best fit for their lifestyle and living situation," says Butzer. "They should also consider adopting from a reputable rescue organization or finding a responsible breeder. A good breeder will be able to help mentor a large new puppy owner."
Working with a rescue often affords less time — Bruce Wayne was in my house 60 hours after I spotted his puppy pic on Petfinder — but it's so worth it in terms of saving your pet from a backyard breeder/puppy mill situation and cost, given that most rescue fees are in the hundreds of dollars instead of the thousands you might pay from a breeder. I will always advocate for reputable rescues/shelters whenever possible, and I'm grateful to the angels at Home At Last Dog Rescue in PA for saving my four-legged best friend and his siblings.
"Large breed dogs typically require more space, exercise, and food than smaller breeds," says Butzer. "They need room to move around and exercise, and they require a diet that is specially formulated to support their large size and high energy levels."
"During adolescence (6 months - 3 years) is when dogs require the most stimulation," adds Messina, noting that each breed has different temperaments and energy requirements — another reason why research is crucial before adding a furry friend to your crew. Training basic commands (such as "off" or "leave it") is essential, because big dogs will be able to reach countertops, tables, and high chairs quicker than you'd imagine.
Ideally, you will have a secure, fenced-in location where your big pup can stretch their legs, which will also help with training. But you also don't want to over-exercise your pup due to health concerns.
Happy, Healthy Pup
"Large breed dogs can be prone to certain health concerns, such as hip dysplasia, arthritis, bloat (gastric torsion), heart disease, and bone cancers," says Butzer. "It's important to research the specific breed you're interested in and talk to a veterinarian about any potential health concerns."
Bloat is something I'd never heard of before getting my dog, and it's something all potential big dog owners should be acutely aware of. "Unlike smaller breeds, some large breed dogs can be affected by bloat," says Messina. "It's a big concern as the early symptoms are hard to identify, and the causes of bloat aren't known. Large breeds can undergo surgery in which the stomach is fixed to the dog's side to prevent bloat."
"Large purebred dogs are also subject to hereditary diseases," she adds. "There is a heart disease called DCM that tends to affect medium-large dog breeds, though there may also be a link to their diet. Aside from the above, large and giant dog breeds tend to also have shorter lifespans than smaller dogs."
It's important not to take your big dog on long runs or walks even if they have tons of puppy energy, as this can set them up for preventable hip and joint issues as they grow. Short, frequent bursts of play and training are best to tire them out and keep things productive and safe.
What To Bring Home
Before you bring your new addition home, you'll want to stock up on essentials, as well as connect with a veterinarian who can guide you on any next steps. The basics are:
- A collar and leash: I can't recommend enough an Easy Walk harness or Gentle Leader headcollar instead of a traditional leash, as my dog is still easily excitable on walks, and you can very easily be taken down by a 90-pounder who wants to make friends with a squirrel up ahead.
- Food and water bowls: Any basic food and water bowls will do, but an elevated set could mean less strain for a large dog to bend over when eating or drinking.
- A crate: "The most important thing in this list," emphasizes Butzer, "is having the large crate not only for potty training but also as a safe spot for them."
- A comfortable bed: "You will also need a thick foam bed," Butzer notes, adding, "Foam is firm and easy and comfortable for a large breed dog to sleep on."
- Baby gates: "I also recommend investing in sturdy, well-built baby gates to keep them out of areas like kitchens and dining rooms because their heads will be able to reach those countertops in no time," explains Messina.
- Toys for exercise and mental stimulation: My dog absolutely destroys fabric or soft toys, and the Kong Extreme toys saved my life.
- Grooming supplies: "You will want to get them used to regular tooth brushing, nail clipping, and coat brushing, so doing these things early and often is a great way to set up healthy habits for life," says Butzer.
- Extra everything: "You're going to need more food, treats, and even poop bags than you thought you did!" says Messina.
You’ll want to get your pup used to hands around their face and mouth — especially if you have little ones — as puppies can be mouthy, and you'll want to ensure your dog doesn't nip or bite aggressively as they age.
"It's also important to have a veterinarian lined up for regular check-ups and vaccinations," adds Butzer.
Lastly, the puppy blues are a very real thing. The first year of having my dog was rough, and I felt like I was doing everything wrong despite all the research, canine kindergarten classes, daycare, and time spent training. Bruce grew so fast and had so much energy, but it all paid off.
I now have the sweetest, most loyal, lazy oaf of a gentle giant who loves everyone, especially my two-year-old nephew. The payoff is years of love, support, snuggles, and companionship — and pet parents know you truly can't put a price on that.