So You Think You Want a Big Dog?
To avoid any confusion, let me define what I mean when I say BIG DOG.
A BIG DOG is one who:
- When lying in your bed, takes up more space than you do.
- When not properly leash trained, has the strength to drag you into the mud on a cold, windy and rainy Idaho morning (read 5 Reasons Why Dog Handling Is Best Left To The Professionals).
- Could potentially break your toe if he stepped on it. I learned that lesson the hard way. Thank you, Junior.
In a nutshell, a big dog is one who, when fully mature, will reach about 50 pounds or more and range in size from a Labrador retriever and German shepherd to the mighty Mastiff.
With big paws, comes big responsibilities. If you are considering opening your home and your heart to a big dog through purchase or adoption, please consider these 7 facts before you do.
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1. IF You Are On A Budget – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You
If you are considering purchasing a large or giant breed puppy, plan to pay more… for everything.
Big dogs are generally more expensive to purchase, reaching in to the thousands for a well-bred puppy. I discuss this in a bit more detail in Top 7 Questions To Ask A Breeder When Buying A Puppy and The 7 Most Common Mastiff Myths Debunked.
Beyond that you can expect to pay more for quality, species appropriate food and veterinary care. People often mistakenly believe if they purchase kibble at $20 for a 55 pound bag, they can cut down on the food expense for their big dog. This type of thinking is short-sighted. It may lead to lower costs today, but at what expense to your new puppy’s health tomorrow? Whether you are feeding a commercial diet or a homemade raw diet, you will want to budget accordingly for food.
Secondly, veterinary expenses will be higher for your big dog. From larger doses of preventative vaccines and medications to surgical expenses if required, your big dog will cost you significantly more than a smaller breed. You may want to consider purchasing pet health insurance which can help you “save up to 90% on vet bills” according to Healthy Paws Pet Insurance.
One of my rules of thumb as it relates to finances is if you are going to need a payment plan in order to purchase your puppy, big dog ownership is not the best choice for you.
(Read The Ultimate Guide to Saving Money on Pet Medications for some great money saving tips)
2. If Your Idea Of Proper Nutrition Is Free-Feeding A Bottomless Bowl Of Puppy Chow – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You
Big Dogs have special nutritional needs.
First of all, big dogs start out as incredibly fast growing puppies. This accelerated growth means that large breed puppies are extremely sensitive to nutrient and caloric imbalances, deficiencies, and excesses, all of which can adversely affect your puppy’s health.
The goal with a large breed puppy is to feed them a balanced, species appropriate diet which allows them to grow slowly and evenly. This can be accomplished by feeding commercial foods that are specially formulated for large breed puppy and large breed adult dogs, or, better yet, a balanced raw diet. These foods will generally be lower in fat, calories, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. These nutrients in excess have been linked to a range of developmental orthopedic diseases such as Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD), Panosteitis, and Osteochondrosis.
Secondly, it is important to NEVER over feed your large breed puppy. Keep in mind, your puppy’s growth should be a long distance marathon, not a sprint. There are no blue ribbons or special awards for the biggest or heaviest puppy. Think Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady wins the race.
Lastly, proper feeding and nutrition can decrease the risk of bloat, or gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), which is common especially in deep-chested giant and large breeds like Great Danes and St. Bernards. Feeding smaller meals 2-3 times a day rather than one big meal, and limiting food and water intake immediately before and after exercise, are two steps you can take to minimize your big dog’s risk of bloat.
3. If Your Puppy Shopping Consists Of Craig’s List Or Pet Stores – You Have Bigger Issues AND BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You.
Big dog’s health requires special care and consideration.
In terms of health, big dogs disproportionately suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia, bloat and cancer as compared to smaller breed dogs. In fact, according to PetMD, 8 of the 9 breeds with the highest incidence of cancer would be considered a big dog. Arthritis, cardiomyopathy, hypothyroidism, and a variety of eye disorders are also conditions which can occur in big dogs.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to minimize the risk of any one of these conditions in your big dog. [These are, of course, in addition to NOT EVER buying a puppy from Craig’s List or a pet store.]
First, ONLY buy a puppy from a reputable breeder who performs health testing on the dogs they are breeding. The tests recommended will vary by breed, but nearly all breed clubs (see Resources page) have recommended tests that should be done prior to breeding in order to decrease incidence of disease in the breed. For more great information about health testing, read
- DNA Testing: Unlocking The Key To Your Dog’s Health,
- For The Betterment Of The Breed-Part 2: An Interview With Jadem Mastiffs,
- Top 7 Questions To Ask A Breeder When Buying A Puppy,
- and Selecting A Dog Breeder? 10 Things To Consider Before You Tie The Knot!
Secondly, follow the advice above with respect to feeding. You don’t need a “Feeding Big Dogs For Dummies” book in order to provide a balanced, high-quality diet, I promise. But recognize the culinary decisions you make for your puppy can contribute to either his vigor or ill health in the future.
BIG DOG OWNERSHIP and Exercise?
Lastly, if you are planning on taking your puppy out with you on your morning jog, think again. Keep in mind that the larger the dog, the longer it takes for their growth plates to close. Because of this, large and giant breed puppies are at substantially higher risk of injury as compared to smaller breeds. The following tips should help as you consider exercising your large breed puppy:
- Long walks (over a mile) are generally not a good idea until the puppy is older or you are strong enough to carry him home when he gets tired.
- Don’t allow your puppy to run and play on slippery floors. Not only does this increase the chance of injury, you are also putting unnecessary pressure on hip and elbow joints as they are developing.
- Limit the amount of time playing with older or bigger dogs. My rule of thumb is to limit playtime to about 15 minutes per month in age once a puppy is past 8 weeks. For example, when Junior was 12 weeks old, I would allow him a total of 45 minutes of playtime with Sulley for the day. I would separate this out into 3 separate play sessions of 15 minutes each which I would limit further if the play got too rough. I made use of my play yard extensively during this stage to allow the dogs to be with one another but separated by the play yard fence. When Junior turned 4 months I increased the daily amount of play time with Sulley to 60 minutes, again broken into 3 or 4 sessions.
There are a plethora of terrific resources out there that can help you if you are unsure of the specific health considerations for your breed. One of the best places to start if you have questions about your breed is your national breed club which I have listed on my Resources Page.
4. If You Live In a Studio Apartment – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You
It is a common misconception that many big dogs such as Mastiffs, St. Bernards, and Newfoundlands, are just big lazy dogs that lay around and do not require much exercise. That could not be further from the truth.
Big dogs fall into the following groups within the American Kennel Club: Working Group, Sporting Group, Hound Group, and Herding Group. ALL of these dogs were bred with specific jobs, or functions, to be able to perform.
Most, if not all of these breeds, will become bored and destructive if not given adequate space, stimulation and exercise. While the required amounts of exercise will vary depending on the breed, very few of these breeds will be suitable or happy confined to a small apartment.
5. If The Thought Of Slobber Or Dog Hair Or Not Having Anti-bacterial Gel Makes You Cringe – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You.
Let’s face it, living with a big dog is a messy business. Even the cleanliest Rhodesian ridgeback can’t compete with a Chihuahua. I’m sorry ridgeback friends. It’s true.
And no matter how often you clean your house or bathe your dogs, if you have a Newfoundland or a Mastiff, forget about it. You need to kiss your fantasies of a perfectly sanitized home goodbye. For a reality check on real life with a big dog read How To Make A Great First Impression Big Dog Mom Style.
6. If You Think Obedience Training Is Only For The Weirdo Dog Sport People – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You
Whether you want to get involved in dog sports like nose work or conformation or not, trust me on this one. You do NOT want to be the person being dragged behind your big dog or to have a big dog that is not friendly toward other dogs or strangers.
Obedience training is critical for ALL dogs, especially big dogs. Positive training methods using treats, toys and fun as rewards work best. Period.
In addition, while socialization should start as soon as the puppy’s eyes and ears open at about 3 weeks of age, you will want to budget for group training and socialization classes. These classes will give you the opportunity to expose your large breed puppy out to new friendly people and other dogs and allow them to experience how wonderful both can be. The investment in positive training early in your big dog’s life will pay off in creating a well-mannered, and bomb-proof canine good citizen. Your puppy will love it and you will reap the rewards for years to come.
7. If The Thought Of Losing Your Canine Companion In 8-10 Years Or Less Is Unbearable To You – BIG DOG OWNERSHIP Might Not Be For You.
Because large and giant breed dogs age more rapidly than smaller breeds, they tend to have a shorter lifespan. This rapid aging causes their bodies to work harder to reach their normal adult size.
Consider the difference between a Yorkshire terrier and a Mastiff. A Yorkie may only reach 8 pounds when full grown, while a male Mastiff can reach 200 pounds or more. That is a lot of growing which occurs in a relatively short period of time. As such the average life span of a Mastiff is 8 years with only 25% or so reaching 10 years of age, while the average lifespan for a Yorkie is 13-16 years.
7 Facts of Big Dog Ownership
- Cost more
- Have Specific Nutritional Needs
- Health Requires Care and Consideration
- Need Space and Exercise
- Can Be Messy
- Must Be Trained and Socialized
- Have a Shorter Lifespan
My objective with this article is not to deter, it is to empower prospective puppy buyers to make a more informed decision on the breed they choose. If I can inhibit just one status seeker or impulse buyer from getting a big dog, than I consider this post a success.
That said, if you read these 7 facts and are still unwavering in your desire for a big dog, than go for it. Welcome to the Big Dog Mom Club! Add your email address in the box below and make it official.