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How to Choose a Dog with Your Head Not Your Heart


how to choose the right dog

 
One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, "What is the best breed of dog?"  There is no simple answer; different breeds are suited to different people and their particular situations.  While it is relatively easy to differentiate breeds based on size, coat type, and coloration, it is more difficult to sort breeds based on their behavioral characteristics.  A single, older woman living alone is looking for a different dog behaviorally speaking than a young couple with children who work 10 hours a day.  The situation is further complicated when the decision is made to adopt a mixed breed dog of indeterminate origin from the shelter.  So, how do you go about making an informed choice?
 
First, you need to evaluate your living situation and the amount of energy and effort you are willing to invest in a new pet.  Do you live in an apartment or house?  Do you have a yard or will the dog have to be walked at a nearby park?  How many hours each day are you home?  What is your financial situation?  Some breeds are just more expensive to own and maintain than others.  This isn't to say that a mutt from the animal shelter will be an inexpensive, problem-free choice.  Owning a dog is a privilege and entails a great deal of responsibility and commitment, both emotionally and financially.  Most dogs live at least 10 years if not longer--are you ready for that kind of long-term relationship?  Once you have honestly evaluated your own situation, you are now ready to begin eliminating breeds based on these elements.  For example, if you live in an apartment, it may be obvious that you can't have a St. Bernard (they're too big); but don't you also need a dog that is somewhat quiet?  If you don't like grooming your dog daily, don't choose a Collie, Lhasa Apso, or Afghan Hound that require daily coat maintenance.  If you don't want a dog that digs, don't pick a Terrier or Dachshund who were originally bred for their ability to "go to ground" in pursuit of vermin.  If you are athletic and want to hike with your dog, don't choose an English Bulldog or Pug since these breeds have short legs and flat noses and are somewhat exercise intolerant.
 
Once you have these basics down on paper, and the possible breeds narrowed down that fit your lifestyle, you are ready to do some research.  While the advice of friends and relatives may be helpful, it will be somewhat biased.  Remember, everyone's living situation is different and will influence the companion animal they choose.  Talk to veterinarians, trainers, groomers, and breeders about the breeds you are interested in.  Do keep in mind, however, that these individuals may be somewhat biased to certain breeds as well.  Breed books from the pet store and library may also be useful.
 
In addition, you may not want to rule out a shelter animal as a possible new companion.  You can acquire good information on shelter residents from the staff working there.  You, too, will see the personalities of these animals coming through the more you visit the facility.  Keep in mind, however, that even with pure-bred dogs, there is variability among individuals of the same breed.  If you choose a puppy or dog of unknown parentage, predicting future behavior will be even more challenging.  Complicating this further is the fact that there are also sex differences in behavior between males and females.
So, now you've decided on a dog and have a fairly good idea of which breed best suits your lifestyle.  Do you choose a puppy or an adult dog?  Male or female?  The best age for adoption of a puppy is between 6 and 10 weeks.  A puppy must be properly socialized to both people and other dogs.  Adoption before 6 weeks of age may disrupt a puppy's socialization to other dogs and adoption after 10 weeks may interfere with it's complete socialization to people.  Some people prefer adopting adult dogs so they can bypass the housetraining and chewing stages.  However, keep in mind that many adult dogs available for adoption have problems of their own behaviorally speaking and may not make the adjustment to a new household as readily as a puppy.  Before adopting an adult dog, observe its behavior closely under different circumstances and be prepared to turn away from an attractive, but nonetheless unadoptable animal from a behavioral point of view.
 
When choosing between a male or female dog, there are a few general principles to keep in mind.  Male dogs are generally more aggressive, dominant, and territorial than females.  Females tend to be less active and playful and more demanding of attention and affection.  Across all breeds, males tend to be more playful (and destructive!) while females are easier to housetrain and obedience train.  Again, your own living situation and desires should be taken into account when choosing not just the breed, but sex of your new dog.
 
Once you have determined the breed and sex of the dog you are interested in, where do you go from there?  Breeders advertise in newspapers, in the classified sections of dog magazines, at pet supply stores, and in some veterinary offices.  Many breeders can also be located on the Worldwide Web.  Many breeders are professionals who are extremely involved in the promotion of their particular breed.  They may be actively involved in the show circuit, rescue work, or dog legislation.  Many are truly interested in maintaining the quality of their breed.  You must be a proactive consumer whether you acquire your dog from a breeder, a shelter, or pet store; do your homework--visit several breeders and compare their facilities.  Puppies should be viewed with their mothers present.  Set up interviews where you can visit with both parents of a litter you are interested in.  Ask for references and contact other people who have purchased dogs from these breeders.  Visit these owners and see their dogs; hopefully you will see full siblings or half-siblings from previous litters.  Carefully review your buyer's contract.  Are you required to spay or neuter the puppy; will you have to make the puppy available to the breeder for the show circuit; is there a "lemon clause;" can you take the puppy to your veterinarian for a health evaluation before making a final decision; etc.  All of these details are important.  If you are acquiring a pure-bred, non-show quality puppy, the breeder may require you to castrate the animal at sexual maturity.  The breeder doesn't want you breeding this dog and perpetuating characteristics they feel should not be passed along.  If you purchase a show quality dog, the breeder may want the option to take the dog from you and show it as well as use it in future breedings (therefore you cannot castrate your puppy).  A "lemon clause" refers to a stipulation that if the puppy has a congenital problem (hip dysplasia, cataracts, deafness, etc.) you can return the pup for either another pup or your money back.  Any puppy you purchase should be evaluated by your own veterinarian for the above medical problems as well as overall health.  This doesn't mean you don't trust the breeder, you just don't want to become attached to a dog with seriously debilitating medical problems.  Many breeders will even include a clause in their contracts which states that if for any reason you are unhappy with your purchase at any time, you can return the dog to them.  These breeders are concerned enough to not want their dogs turning up abandoned at shelters.  The breeders you visit with will also be evaluating you.  You will have to answer their questions regarding your reasons for choosing their breed.  They may even want to visit your home to check its suitability for one of their puppies.  Don't be put off by this part of the process; the breeder is only trying to do what is best for the puppies and they want to make sure you are a good match for their dogs.
 
If you are acquiring a dog from a pet store, it is particularly important to evaluate the reputability of the facility and where they receive their dogs.  Make sure that the puppy you purchase is healthy and well-adjusted by taking it to see a veterinarian immediately.  Again, read your contract carefully.  If you have your heart set on acquiring a rescue dog or shelter animal, be prepared to do your homework here as well.  Get to know the animal better by taking it away from the shelter or foster home and evaluating its behavior.  Try a test run at your house with your family.  Get as much background information as you can on the dog.  Why was it given up for adoption?  Why was it rescued from a previous owner and put in a foster home?  Always have any new animal from a shelter or rescue situation thoroughly evaluated by your veterinarian before exposing your family or other pets to this newcomer.
 
A new dog is an investment in time and money.  Do your research before you ever even hold that first little wiggly bundle of fur.  Know what your own limitations and requirements are and stick to them.  By knowing your own heart and mind you will be less likely to be swayed by the biased opinions of others.  The ideas I've presented here are only meant as an outline.  There are many questions you should prepare ahead of time before you meet with your first breeders or visit a shelter.  You must also be prepared for the questions that will be asked of you.
 
I realize that many people don't have the time or resources to do the kind of research needed to acquire a new dog.  You may feel that you aren't familiar with enough breeds to determine which ones would be best for you.  There is help available out there.  Contact your veterinarian for advice or a behaviorist who specializes in breed counseling.  They will be more than happy to help you find that perfect canine companion.  By taking the time to honestly evaluate your situation, the breeds you are most interested in owning, and those which best suit your circumstances, you can dramatically increase the chances of the process going smoothly for your family.

 

Today, our guest expert and animal behavior specialist gives you some great advice for choosing a dog that will fit well into your life - and not just a dog that steals your heart by being "cute"... and sets you up for a disasterous relationship down the road.

 

Where to Start?

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, "What is the best breed of dog?"  There is no simple answer; different breeds are suited to different people and their particular situations.  While it is relatively easy to differentiate breeds based on size, coat type, and coloration, it is more difficult to sort breeds based on their behavioral characteristics.  A single, older woman living alone is looking for a different dog behaviorally speaking than a young couple with children who work 10 hours a day.  The situation is further complicated when the decision is made to adopt a mixed breed dog of indeterminate origin from the shelter.  So, how do you go about making an informed choice? 

First, you need to evaluate your living situation and the amount of energy and effort you are willing to invest in a new pet.  Do you live in an apartment or house?  Do you have a yard or will the dog have to be walked at a nearby park?  How many hours each day are you home?  What is your financial situation?  Some breeds are just more expensive to own and maintain than others.  This isn't to say that a mutt from the animal shelter will be an inexpensive, problem-free choice.  Owning a dog is a privilege and entails a great deal of responsibility and commitment, both emotionally and financially.  Most dogs live at least 10 years if not longer--are you ready for that kind of long-term relationship?  

 

Think About the Breed

Once you have honestly evaluated your own situation, you are now ready to begin eliminating breeds based on these elements.  For example, if you live in an apartment, it may be obvious that you can't have a St. Bernard (they're too big); but don't you also need a dog that is somewhat quiet?  If you don't like grooming your dog daily, don't choose a Collie, Lhasa Apso, or Afghan Hound that require daily coat maintenance.  If you don't want a dog that digs, don't pick a Terrier or Dachshund who were originally bred for their ability to "go to ground" in pursuit of vermin.  If you are athletic and want to hike with your dog, don't choose an English Bulldog or Pug since these breeds have short legs and flat noses and are somewhat exercise intolerant. 

Once you have these basics down on paper, and the possible breeds narrowed down that fit your lifestyle, you are ready to do some research.  While the advice of friends and relatives may be helpful, it will be somewhat biased.  Remember, everyone's living situation is different and will influence the companion animal they choose.  Talk to veterinarians, trainers, groomers, and breeders about the breeds you are interested in.  Do keep in mind, however, that these individuals may be somewhat biased to certain breeds as well.  Breed books from the pet store and library may also be useful.


Could You Rescue a Dog?

In addition, you may not want to rule out a shelter animal as a possible new companion.  You can acquire good information on shelter residents from the staff working there.  You, too, will see the personalities of these animals coming through the more you visit the facility.  Keep in mind, however, that even with pure-bred dogs, there is variability among individuals of the same breed.  If you choose a puppy or dog of unknown parentage, predicting future behavior will be even more challenging.  Complicating this further is the fact that there are also sex differences in behavior between males and females.


What Age Works Best?

So, now you've decided on a dog and have a fairly good idea of which breed best suits your lifestyle. Do you choose a puppy or an adult dog?  Male or female?  The best age for adoption of a puppy is between 6 and 10 weeks.  A puppy must be properly socialized to both people and other dogs.  Adoption before 6 weeks of age may disrupt a puppy's socialization to other dogs and adoption after 10 weeks may interfere with it's complete socialization to people.  Some people prefer adopting adult dogs so they can bypass the housetraining and chewing stages.  However, keep in mind that many adult dogs available for adoption have problems of their own behaviorally speaking and may not make the adjustment to a new household as readily as a puppy.  Before adopting an adult dog, observe its behavior closely under different circumstances and be prepared to turn away from an attractive, but nonetheless unadoptable animal from a behavioral point of view.

 

Male or Female?

When choosing between a male or female dog, there are a few general principles to keep in mind. Male dogs are generally more aggressive, dominant, and territorial than females.  Females tend to be less active and playful and more demanding of attention and affection.  Across all breeds, males tend to be more playful (and destructive!) while females are easier to housetrain and obedience train.  Again, your own living situation and desires should be taken into account when choosing not just the breed, but sex of your new dog.

 

Where is Your Ideal Dog?

Once you have determined the breed and sex of the dog you are interested in, where do you go from there?  Breeders advertise in newspapers, in the classified sections of dog magazines, at pet supply stores, and in some veterinary offices.  Many breeders can also be located on the Worldwide Web.  Many breeders are professionals who are extremely involved in the promotion of their particular breed.  They may be actively involved in the show circuit, rescue work, or dog legislation.  Many are truly interested in maintaining the quality of their breed.  You must be a proactive consumer whether you acquire your dog from a breeder, a shelter, or pet store; do your homework--visit several breeders and compare their facilities.  Puppies should be viewed with their mothers present.  Set up interviews where you can visit with both parents of a litter you are interested in.  Ask for references and contact other people who have purchased dogs from these breeders.  Visit these owners and see their dogs; hopefully you will see full siblings or half-siblings from previous litters.  Carefully review your buyer's contract.  Are you required to spay or neuter the puppy; will you have to make the puppy available to the breeder for the show circuit; is there a "lemon clause;" can you take the puppy to your veterinarian for a health evaluation before making a final decision; etc.  All of these details are important.  If you are acquiring a pure-bred, non-show quality puppy, the breeder may require you to castrate the animal at sexual maturity.  The breeder doesn't want you breeding this dog and perpetuating characteristics they feel should not be passed along.  If you purchase a show quality dog, the breeder may want the option to take the dog from you and show it as well as use it in future breedings (therefore you cannot castrate your puppy).  A "lemon clause" refers to a stipulation that if the puppy has a congenital problem (hip dysplasia, cataracts, deafness, etc.) you can return the pup for either another pup or your money back.  Any puppy you purchase should be evaluated by your own veterinarian for the above medical problems as well as overall health.  This doesn't mean you don't trust the breeder, you just don't want to become attached to a dog with seriously debilitating medical problems.  Many breeders will even include a clause in their contracts which states that if for any reason you are unhappy with your purchase at any time, you can return the dog to them.  These breeders are concerned enough to not want their dogs turning up abandoned at shelters.  The breeders you visit with will also be evaluating you.  You will have to answer their questions regarding your reasons for choosing their breed.  They may even want to visit your home to check its suitability for one of their puppies.  Don't be put off by this part of the process; the breeder is only trying to do what is best for the puppies and they want to make sure you are a good match for their dogs.

If you are acquiring a dog from a pet store, it is particularly important to evaluate the reputability of the facility and where they receive their dogs.  Make sure that the puppy you purchase is healthy and well-adjusted by taking it to see a veterinarian immediately.  Again, read your contract carefully.  If you have your heart set on acquiring a rescue dog or shelter animal, be prepared to do your homework here as well.  Get to know the animal better by taking it away from the shelter or foster home and evaluating its behavior.  Try a test run at your house with your family.  Get as much background information as you can on the dog.  Why was it given up for adoption?  Why was it rescued from a previous owner and put in a foster home?  Always have any new animal from a shelter or rescue situation thoroughly evaluated by your veterinarian before exposing your family or other pets to this newcomer.

 

Take the Time to Research

A new dog is an investment in time and money.  Do your research before you ever even hold that first little wiggly bundle of fur.  Know what your own limitations and requirements are and stick to them.  By knowing your own heart and mind you will be less likely to be swayed by the biased opinions of others.  The ideas I've presented here are only meant as an outline.  There are many questions you should prepare ahead of time before you meet with your first breeders or visit a shelter.  You must also be prepared for the questions that will be asked of you.

I realize that many people don't have the time or resources to do the kind of research needed to acquire a new dog.  You may feel that you aren't familiar with enough breeds to determine which ones would be best for you.  There is help available out there.  Contact your veterinarian for advice or a behaviorist who specializes in breed counseling.  They will be more than happy to help you find that perfect canine companion.  By taking the time to honestly evaluate your situation, the breeds you are most interested in owning, and those which best suit your circumstances, you can dramatically increase the chances of the process going smoothly for your family.

-- Julie Bond, Certified Animal Behaviorist, Pet Education & Training Services

###

About the Author: Julie Bond has extensive experience and knowledge in all aspects of animal behavior and care. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biological Psychology and a Master's Degree in Animal Behavior from the University of California at Davis. She is a member of the National Association of Animal Behaviorists (NAAB), the National Honor Society in Psychology, and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). She is the staff behaviorist for Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services, serving the San Francisco Bay Area.