If you’re asking this question (or its cousin, “which breed is best for…”), you’re probably already aware that choosing from among the ample assortment of breeds isn’t just about deciding which one you think is prettiest.
Diverse appearances come with diverse needs and hard-wired behaviors. Sometimes the one you like best on the outside aren’t as pretty on the inside.
Preliminary Family Discovery Questions:
I recommend working through these questions, as a family, as early in the selection process as possible.
What's our family make up? Single, 7AM-9PM CEO? Young married couple who plan to have kids in several years? Family with 3 year old triplets and pregnant with another baby? Retired widow? College student?
How frequently do we have non-family members into our home for parties, visits, etc.? Weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.?
Where do we live? Apartment? Condo with no backyard? House on 5 acres? Duplex with three roommates?
What do we do in our downtime? Stay home and marathon Netflix shows? Visit the lake? Drive kids to 15 different extra-curricular activities? Hike? Have two other couples over to play dominoes?
Do we travel? How do we travel? How important is it for us to take the dog with us? If we don't travel now, do we plan to when we retire in 5 years?
How often are we home and awake? All the time except for errands? Two hours before work and then two hours before bed?
What dog behaviors are deal-breakers for us? Barking at guests? Counter-surfing? Chewing shoes? Digging holes?
Do we have any other pets in the home? Not just dogs, but birds, guinea pigs, cats, etc.
Why do we want a dog? Companion? Kids have been asking for years? My current dog is getting older and I want her to pass on her good habits to the new dog? Playmate for current dog?
How do we plan to exercise the dog? Fetch in the backyard? Walk through the apartment complex? Off-leash walk on the property?
These questions reveal the established aspects of your family. Although adopting a new dog always involves some lifestyle adaptation, identifying your family's current structure is valuable—especially those elements that are fixed or non-negotiable.
For example, if your only immediate exercise option is a two-mile walk through the heart of downtown, that won’t work for a fearful or reactive dog. You’ll have to first drive drive to a quiet location, give him his time, and then drive home. Is that something you’re willing to do? How often can you do it? Are you willing to do it indefinitely? Is the dog you have in mind okay in the car?
Looking at a Pure-Bred Dog
One of my biggest tips for families considering a pure-bred puppy or adult is to meet and spend time with several individuals from the breed. Ask owners about their dogs:
What's your favorite thing about your dog?
What's your least favorite thing about your dog?
When did your dog behaviorally mature into an adult?
Is this your first dog of this breed?
What kind of household would your dog have a hard time with?
What kind of household does your dog thrive in?
Please do not select a breed because the American Kennel Club website said it was a, "good family dog." Every single family is different. Stick to your Discovery Questions to guide you in evaluating breeds, and talk with people who have actually lived with the breed as a pet.
PRO TIP: when it comes to working-type breeds, show-bred or show-line dogs typically make better house pets compared to their field-bred counterparts. Field-bred dogs are bred to be in the *field* working, not lounging around your house.
Adopting a Mixed-Breed
Foster-based organizations are my first stop for finding a mixed breed dog. Because the dog has been living in a home environment, you’re more likely to have information about his house manners.
Notice, I didn't say the dog is more likely to be well-behaved. Just that you are more likely to get more information about his current behavior in a home.
Although the dog's appearance isn’t guaranteed to reveal his ancestry, you may also wish to familiarize yourself with the different breed groups (Sporting, Non-sporting, Herding, Hound, Terrier, Toy, and Miscellaneous).
Mixed or pure-bred, I encourage folks to look at each dog as an individual. Just because the Labrador is known as America’s poster pup for a family dog, that doesn’t mean all Labradors are guaranteed to be like that. Ultimately, you’ll be living with an individual, not a breed standard. When in doubt, contact a qualified, reward-based trainer for an opinion about the dog you have in mind.
And remember, no matter which individual dog you choose, he will most likely be a “fixer-upper” who need housetraining, supervision, leash manners and possibly more behavior renovation. A professional trainer can be a great resource for providing an estimate on the amount of work your “fixer-upper” needs to transition into your home.
We don’t have a dog, but after 14 years of boarding, I’ve definitely got some ideas about what I would and wouldn’t look for in a personal dog.
Barking. Not a fan of barking. I know that highly sensitive dogs who frequently alert to environmental changes (i.e. German Shepherds and other "watch dog" types) would be very frustrating for me.
Clingy-ness. When it comes to day to day living, I prefer more independent dogs who are happy chilling on their pillow rather than following me the five steps across the kitchen.
Sniffing. Yep. I'm a dog person, but dogs giving me the third degree with their nose when I arrive home sometimes makes me want to jump out of my skin (I have been known to crawl onto the counters to escape it). Scent hounds might not be the best choice for me. Beagles, I'm looking at you.
Long-hair. Been there. Done that. It's hard to keep clean and I'm less inclined to pet dogs who have long hair.
High levels of fear/anxiety. I have a really hard time being patient with this. Yes, I am a professional trainer so I know how to work on it, but I don't want to sign up for that 24/7.
What about things that I would like?
Confidence. Taking the dog along with me to dog friendly places is a thrill for me so I would look for a dog who had this potential.
Friendly to strangers. Right now there are a lot of people and activity at my home. A dog with Stranger-Danger would not be happy there.
Good doggy social skills. This does not mean I want a dog who wants to play with every other dog. In fact, if I had to choose, I might pick one who was neutral about other dogs. Again, given my current lifestyle, things will be easier if I select a dog who won't lose it when he sees another dog.
Food motivated. What can I say: training is easier if the dog likes food.