Christmas cards feature adorable puppies in Santa hats.  Popcorn tins display groups of pups peeking through the branches of Christmas trees. Christmas movies repeatedly show cute puppies peeking out of boxes, wrapping themselves in ribbons and otherwise being an adorable part of the Christmas scene.

The “Christmas Puppy” is a much-loved part of the holiday tradition, but the sad truth is that many puppies given as Christmas gifts end up in shelters; some as early as Valentine’s Day.

As a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, I see the sad debris of gift puppies. The lucky ones are those whose new owners seek help correcting problems overlooked since the holidays. Many more pups find themselves “free to a good home,” dumped along roadways and left at shelters. Ill-mannered, unsocialized and untrained, many of these pups will die.

There are many reasons that Christmas is a bad time to add a pup to the family. Puppies go through developmental stages, and the first fear period in a puppy’s life occurs roughly between the age of 7-12 weeks, which is also the time when most pups are placed in new homes. This is a vulnerable time for puppies, as fears learned during this period can be difficult to overcome later and can impact the pup even when he’s an adult.  Puppies need to join their new homes in a quiet, peaceful fashion.  Christmas morning, with its squeals, flashing lights, visitors and general chaos is the worst time to introduce a puppy to the family.

The extra things laying around, distractions that make it difficult to supervise a puppy and added dangers of the holidays can also result in a rush visit to the animal emergency clinic or a dead puppy, either of which would bring the holiday celebrating to an unpleasant end.

If you are purchasing a puppy, understand that a responsible breeder with knowledge of canine health, genetics, socialization and development will seldom agree to send a puppy home Christmas morning.  If the breeder you’re dealing with has no qualms about doing this, it should warn you that you’re getting your puppy from someone who cares more about their wallet than the welfare of the puppies they’ve produced, which means they’ve probably taken shortcuts in other areas as well.

Unlike toys, video games, electronics and other gift items, a puppy is a living, breathing creature with needs of its own. A puppy should be thought of as a family member, not an item. This message can be unclear when the puppy arrives under the tree with the rest of the gifts.

If you’re determined to add a puppy to the family at Christmas, follow some guidelines.  A puppy shouldn’t be an impulse purchase.  Only add a dog if you’ve considered the added expense and time requirements of a dog, and evaluated the size, type and characteristics of your family’s ideal dog.

Unless you are purchasing a dog for your spouse or child who still lives at home, do not try to surprise someone with a puppy. The fact that a person has always wanted a dog doesn’t mean that this is the right time for them to get one. Talk to the person, or to an adult member of the household, to ensure that the gift will be welcome. Most quality breeders will not sell you a dog to give to someone outside of your home; they will want to speak with the dog’s ultimate owner to verify the baby is going to a good home.

Realizing that puppies need time to fit into their new environment, if you’re giving the pup to a school-aged child, it might be better to present the puppy early, at the start of the holiday break. This gives the puppy time to adjust to his new family before the excitement of Christmas morning. If you really want the surprise under the tree element, a better way to do it is to wrap up the needed equipment and supplies.  Create a coupon good for a puppy from the local shelter or rescue group, or include a picture of the pup coming from the breeder. This makes the pup’s homecoming less stressful, and you preserve the joy of the experience for the receiver.

Consider that an adult dog might be a better choice for your situation.  Skipping the puppy stage can be a great thing.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking an older puppy or young adult won’t be as affectionate or loving; dogs of all ages can become treasured family members.

As you consider the purchase of a Christmas puppy, don’t get caught up in the spirit of the season. You are adding a family member that should be with you for many years.

Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.