12/11/2012 05:16 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?

There's hardly a gift more likely to induce squeals of delight on Christmas morning than the gift of a cuddly, big-pawed-tiny-body puppy, complete with irresistible puppy-dog eyes. My own family recently let out some pretty overjoyed squeals of our own when we brought home Montgomery, our English Toy Spaniel puppy, last month. Even Wellington, our 8-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, seems to have a renewed sense of puppy-like playfulness now that Monty is part of the pack!

At first glance, giving the gift of a puppy can seem like a great idea. The whole truth is, when a gift has a heartbeat, it gets a little more complicated.

Sure, a snuggly puppy needs a comfy bed, and food, and toys, and a leash and collar, and a crate, and maybe even a handsome holiday sweater to wear when he meets the rest of the family. When his needs can be met with a swipe of the AMEX, most of us are happy to break out the billfold and buy, buy, buy.

But often in all the excitement of bringing a puppy home we can overlook important issues regarding his well-being. Did you know that pets under one year old are 2.5 times more likely to need unexpected veterinary treatment than their older counterparts; are you prepared to pay for his health care? How will you train him? When will he get the exercise and enrichment he needs to be happy and healthy with everyone's busy schedules? What happens when he eats your favorite pair of Manolo Blahnik's? Or wees on your hand-knotted Persian silk rug?

Bringing home a hound for the holidays can be wonderful, and his adorable antics can give your family years of joy, but before all reason goes out the window when you look into those sweet puppy dog eyes, put a plan into place to set yourself up for success.

Timing is Everything

The right time to get a puppy is not five minutes after you've decided you want one. You need time to research which breeds might be right for your lifestyle, search for reputable breeders, find a veterinarian you're comfortable with, decide whether to purchase pet insurance, talk to your local shelter, dog trainer and other pet parents for advice and recommendations, figure out where your pet will stay when you go on vacation, create a budget and learn how to house-train a dog. Opening your doors to a dog before you've done all of this is a recipe for disaster.

Keep an Open Mind

You may have your heart set on a brown dog, or a female dog, or a dog with floppy ears, but limiting your search like this could keep you from finding "the one." I can't tell you how many pet parents start out looking for a dog that looks a certain way, and end up instead with a dog they fell in love with. Maybe a breed they hadn't considered. Maybe a much older dog. But the "right" dog nonetheless.

Find Your Perfect Fit

Whether you adopt a dog or purchase one from a breeder, the most important thing is to get a pet that fits in with your family. Every breed has a different temperament, energy level, dietary needs, hereditary health conditions they're prone to, exercise requirements and grooming needs. Do your research! If you don't have two hours to exhaust a Border Collie every day, find another dog. Even if Border Collies are your favorite.

Go Local

Never buy a puppy online and have him shipped to you. You simply don't know what you are going to get, or where that puppy really came from (most likely, a puppy mill). You have no way of knowing whether the puppy is diseased, or if he's been bred responsibly to avoid genetic conditions resulting from inbreeding. Reputable breeders do not sell their puppies online; many don't even advertise. Put the effort into finding a legitimate breeder in your area, or adopt an animal from your local shelter or rescue, where there is never a shortage of sweet, loving pets waiting for someone to give them a chance.

No matter how magical the moment when your loved one opens a box and out pops a puppy, reality will soon set in (usually around the time he first makes a mess on the carpet). But remember: Bringing a dog home is making him a promise. Give the process its due diligence, invest in your pet's health and well-being from the start, and you'll find that what you get in return is priceless.