As the New Year kicks into gear, don’t be discouraged by the fact that you may have already given up on your New Year’s resolutions. Who needs to learn how to play the piano anyway? If you really want to focus on doing something to better yourself this year, why not focus on your four-legged friend who’s been with you every step of the way?

Instead of resolving to lose weight or call your mother once a week, you can dedicate yourself to responsible dog ownership.

Wait, what? It’s easy to own a dog, right? You feed them, let them out once in awhile and occasionally pat them on the head as they walk past the couch. But really, is that what you, or your dog, signed up for?

When you buy a dog or take one home from a shelter, you’re assuming a meaningful responsibility. We’ve all had periods of time where we’ve paid less attention to our dogs because of life’s unexpected curveballs. But then we come back. Heck, we even forget our kids in the carseat when we’re unloading the groceries. Unlike your children, they won’t be able to live on their own and drive themselves to and from the doctor and go shopping for food when they run out. But then again, they don’t need to be taken to soccer practice nor will they ask for the latest iPhone either. They just want to be there for you. Just one pet on the head when you walk by them and maybe a chance to lay on your feet on those cold winter nights.

OK, you get it. But what do we do now? Where do we start? Going through this year we will be exploring the elements of responsible dog ownership and how to ensure you’re keeping up with those responsibilities. I’ll go into greater detail on these basic elements in future columns. Let’s begin with some of the basics.

1. Don’t forget the vet: Sure, you may think you can learn all about your dog’s ailments on the Internet but in reality, you should be bringing your dog into your veterinarian on a regular basis. If you’ve found a vet that you trust, he or she will come to know your dog and possibly notice small irregularities on his or her body that you may have missed. And don’t forget to tell your vet about any behavior changes you notice. Your vet can help you decipher some of those behavioral clues and makes sure your dog lives a long and happy life.

2. Be kind to their stomachs: As dog’s age, it gets easier to toss them the remainder of your chicken-parmesan dinner or salami-sandwich lunch but you should always be mindful of what you give them to eat. Feed them quality food — hint: “12 cans for $1!” probably isn’t quality food — and adjust their diet as they get less active. Also, remain vigilant about leaving food or something that smells or looks like food within their reach. And make sure you continually fill that water bowl. As with humans, a daily input of fresh water will help keep your dog hydrated and healthy. At our dog daycare and hotel we see hundreds of different types of diets prescribed and invented by vets and owners. We will get into detail on food basics in an upcoming article.

3. Keep up their appearances: The old dog with the foul breath and matted fur is a cliche but the actual cliche is the owner of that dog who figures he or she no longer has to brush them on a regular basis or bring them to a groomer for regular visits. It’s not just a matter of appearance, either. Dogs with longer nails often find themselves tangled in carpeting or clothing and no longer have the patience to bark until you come rescue them. Instead, they’ll struggle to free themselves and rip out a portion of their nail in the process, leaving a bloody trail for you to follow when you come home from work. Same goes for their teeth and fur. Brush their fur regularly as well as their teeth.

4. Teach them social skills: Dogs aren’t automatically afraid of children or cower in fear around dogs half their size. Those are behaviors that are often learned when they’re with adults who aren’t paying attention to the situation around them. When you have young dogs, take them for walks where they’ll encounter other dogs to gauge their behavior and reaction. Teach them how to walk on a leash so they can have safe trips around the park without darting off into the street to chase a squirrel. Find friends and family members they feel comfortable with so you can have that emergency sitter you might need when you have to make a late-night run to the ER or feel like eloping to Las Vegas. Bring them to dog-care facilities for playdates and overnight stays. Teach them how to sit alongside you in an outdoor cafe so you and those sitting nearby can enjoy a meal. In other words, it’s your responsibility to introduce your dogs to new social situations.

5. Give them their dignity: Treat them with care and respect at all stages of their lives. And when they get older, be sure to give them the proper respect they deserve. As difficult as it is to admit, ailing dogs often aren’t kept alive for their own benefit. Instead, it’s for the benefit of owners who aren’t ready to let go. And that’s normal. But being a responsible dog owner requires making tough decisions. A dog can’t make her own choices on how to live out her final days. But you can. Do so with an emphasis on the well-being of dog you love, not the life you dread without them.

I think it was Charles Dickens who coined the phrase “it is no small thing.” If it was, he probably had a dog sitting by his side as he wrote that with his feather quill pen. Because it is no small thing. It’s a commitment that begins the day you bring them into your home and ends the day they take their last breath. You certainly didn’t adopt a dog to have them sit on your couch all day.  You probably brought a dog into your home and into your life because you wanted a two-way relationship: It’s likely that your dog has kept up her end of the bargain. And it’s never too late to make sure you keep up yours.

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Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners. 

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