Our little family, in Montana.
Our little family, in Montana.
Indefinitely Wild

Things No One Tells You About Owning Big Dogs

They're not all head rubs and face licks


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My girlfriend and I own two large dogs. Wiley, our five-year-old rescue mutt, weighs 85 pounds, and Bowie, our one-year-old husky–German shepherd mix, is currently about 75 pounds.

Are dogs like this right for you? Let me give you a dose of reality before you answer that.

They Eat…a Lot

Until recently, we fed our dogs a very high-quality kibble, which added up to about $200 per month, supplemented with healthy leftovers, scraps, and boiled chicken breasts, to the tune of probably another $100 per month.

I considered that a lot until, prompted by all the recent dog-food safety scandals, I switched them to a raw diet. After the first week on that, we calculated our monthly dog food expense had grown to about $650. And I had to clear out half our freezer to keep just half a week’s food at home. (I’m currently trying to figure out ways to make that more manageable for more people—look for an article on just that next week.)

And remember: All actions have an equal and opposite reaction. And you will be picking up that reaction by hand.

You Will Interact with So Many More People

If you don’t have a dog, you probably take for granted how nice it is to just be able to walk somewhere without having to interact with everyone you pass. But you will give that up once you adopt a large dog. Every person you encounter with a big dog will have a reaction. Most will want to ask you (the same) questions. Many will have an opinion.

Think that sounds the same as owning a puppy or a small mop masquerading as an actual dog? Where the reaction to those is typically just “Awwwwwwwww,” with a large dog, the reactions run the gamut from fear to anger to genuine awe. They’re different, more powerful emotions, and they’re different, more annoying opinions. Those typically revolve around your capacity as a trainer, as it’s represented in your dog’s precise behavior at that particular moment, good or bad.

You’ll also be adding yourself to an entire new social circle: dog owners. You might think you’d have a lot in common with those people, but just like in any culture, dog ownership is fraught with cliques, subsets, and both formal and unspoken rules and mores. Especially with a big dog that can run fast and may scare other dogs, you’ll have to interact with other dog owners the second you enter any sort of dog park or popular trail. Compared to other people, dog owners will demand even more of your attention. Expect them to be angry with you, annoyed with you, or assume they’re your lifelong best friend from the very first second of your very first interaction.

To all that, you can add the challenge of navigating a world full of humans with a big dog in tow. Is your dog welcome inside that business? Even if it is, how will other people there react? Should you tie up your dog outside while you go in? If you do, will someone work themselves into a tizzy about your “abandoned” dog? Will someone try to pet it without asking permission? What will happen if your dog scares them when they approach it? Shy and retiring types need not apply.

And You’ll Be Surprised How Much Some People Hate Them

Not every completely irrational reaction that total strangers will have toward your dog will be positive. Our usual hike was a little more crowded than usual the other day. Early on, a man approached us from behind and loudly informed us that if one of our dogs bit him, he was going to take our house. Extremely puzzled, we didn’t know how to react, but after he passed us, he started telling all the oncoming people that Wiley had bit him and that they were about to encounter an extremely violent dog who was attacking people. We struggled through the first few interactions with terrified hikers before deciding it simply wasn’t worth the effort and returned to our car. All this from someone our dogs totally ignored as he walked past us.

Sound insane? It is, but that’s the kind of reaction one large dog, let alone two, can trigger in people who fear or dislike animals. And the thing is that even though the other person clearly causes the problem, you’ll have to carry the burden of it. Just like we couldn’t fully convince other hikers that day that Bowie and Wiley posed no threat, whenever anyone accuses your dog of an aggressive act, you will automatically be in the wrong and can expect, at best, to have to leave the area and, at worst, face penalties for something your dog probably wasn’t at fault for.

Your Dog Might Be Scary, But It’s Also Scared

Wiley is absolutely terrified of balloons. Just because a dog is big does not mean it will make a good guard dog or that you can rely on it to protect you or your home.

The first time it thunders and you have to hold 80-plus pounds of whimpering crybaby in your lap, it’s adorable. Two hours in, it’s annoying. The first time your dog cries on a car ride, you’ll feel sorry for it. When you’re eight hours into a 12-hour drive and your dog is still whimpering, you’ll wish you’d left it at home.

When They’re Not, Though, Watch Out

Walking around Los Angeles so we can build dog exercise into our daily routines, we frequently encounter guys who think they’re tough. Wiley keeps an eye out for tough guys trying to intimidate other people a block or two ahead, and when we reach them, he likes to remind them that they’re not as tough as they think. His leash is made from two strands of braided climbing rope for a reason.

He’s cleared our yard of possums and raccoons. For a while, we had a rat’s nest under the back deck. Before I could get around to pulling out the face boards to climb under there and exterminate them, Bowie had performed both jobs for me. In the outdoors, we have to be careful to keep an eye out for animals and keep the dogs away from them. A black bear once regretted sticking around to see if it was tougher than two of our big dogs.

Big dogs are a handful, and even the most predictable can sometimes get their judgement wrong in determining which scenarios require what kind of response. You are responsible for their behavior and always need to be ready to render them harmless.

But You’ll Still Worry About Them Every Day

Sitting by a campfire at night, earlier this week, Wiley heard something outside camp and sprinted after it, hackles raised. He was only gone for five or so minutes and has never had a problem dealing with anything he’s found out there to date, but those were still five minutes I spent worrying about my little buddy.

In the city, I worry constantly about traffic. When I leave them alone, I worry that someone might try to break in. There’s a dog nabber active in West Hollywood right now, so I worry when they’re tied up outside a business and I can’t see them.

Have they proven their ability to take care of themselves? Absolutely, but with all the craziness dogs attract, as described here, we still worry about them all the time nonetheless.

Big Dogs Can Cause So Much Damage, So Fast

Bowie somehow got himself locked in our bedroom the other day and started panicking. He knocked down a piece of art (of him) and broke its frame. He destroyed some important original documents that were stacked on top of a dresser. He spilled a bottle of wine on a pile of clean clothes. I noticed the other day that he’d chewed through a seat belt in one of our cars.

None of that is his fault—it’s just a reality for owners of large dogs. Given enough time or incentive, they can get over or through virtually any obstacle and are powerful enough to cause a ton of damage just by simple accident when they’re energetic. That’s something you’re guaranteed to bear the cost of at the best of times, and big dogs can break so much more if you ever give them cause to be purposefully destructive. How much did your couch cost? Better give your dog enough attention and exercise unless you want to replace it.

They Need More Exercise Than You Ever Thought Possible

We try to hike the dogs every single day on a route that’s 4.5-miles long, has 1,600 feet of elevation gain, and takes us 90 minutes to two hours. That’s a huge time commitment, and it doesn’t disappear if we’re tired, if the weather is bad, or if we’re sick. And yet the dogs can still come home from that and fly around the yard at top speed for hours more.

Providing exercise ensures that your dogs are happy and healthy. But as we addressed previously, a dog like a husky is potentially able to run up to 100 miles in a single day. You can never get close to that in day-to-day life, but you still have to try as hard as you can.

And They’re Totally Worth It

The expense, commitment, and stress of owning a single large dog, let alone two, can sometimes feel overwhelming. Owning them takes real dedication, but a dog takes all the effort you put in and gives you much more in return.

Wiley may be a magnet for crazy people, but he’s also the reason Virginia swiped right back in 2016. He may put me in dangerous situations from time to time, but he utterly has my back throughout them, without question or hesitation.

Virginia and I are in better shape because we have large dogs. We eat healthier, because we have to feed them good stuff, too. And neither of us needs to feel lonely if we’re away from each other, because we’ll have one of the dogs with us. The dogs definitely make us compromise in other areas of our lives, but in all cases, the changes they dictate are actually positive.

I may be writing this while sitting on a couch with a hole in it, wearing wine-stained shorts, but at least I’m sitting here with my dogs.

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