How to Choose Your Next Dog
Part 1. What Matters?
In middle school, I dreamed of having my very own dog. One that I got to pick out, train, and bond with. By the time I reac high school, I had started dreaming of outdoor ministry work. That new love of the outdoors was inspired by my time at a Christian Outdoor Leadership camp in northern California. At that camp, I got to whitewater raft, backpack, and participate in high and low ropes activities.
My new love of the outdoors meant that I needed a dog who could also hike, be off-leash trained, get along with people and other animals, and follow me around all day. Not to mention be a good travel size!
By the time I adopted my first dog in college while living at home and commuting to school, I had learned a lot about dogs and training. I had almost a decade to learn it after all. I knew breeds, temperament traits, training from basic obedience to advanced, how to socialize and raise a puppy, and a ton of random facts that I won’t bore you with here.
That dog dream took form in my Border Collie Mack.
A one-year-old rescue I adopted from an elderly lady in Tennessee. He fit the bill and more.
He was silly, smart as a whip, loyal, mischievous, well socialized (mostly- he came with a few quirks), and travel-size at thirty-five pounds.
What Matters in a Dog?
Choosing a dog is about more than just looks.
I won’t tell you that looks and simply liking a dog are not important; they are. There are a lot of cute dogs out there though, and everyone’s interpretation of beauty is different.
Your dog will hopefully be with you for ten-to-sixteen years, possibly less if you adopt an older dog. That is a long time though. That is enough time for a career change, a marriage, children, moving into retirement, a move, or a lot of other major life changes to occur.
How Fido will fit into your current and possible-future life makes a huge difference in whether you will enjoy your dog or regret getting him.
Many dogs wouldn’t be rehomed or dumped if more forethought was put into choosing the dog in the first place.
Finding the Dog that’s Right for You
Whether or not a dog fits into your life has a lot to do with your own personality, your lifestyle, your family’s needs, your environment, your health, and your personal preferences.
Finding a dog that fits you will help both you and your dog enjoy your relationship long-term.
If you are gone all day, travel often, and don’t like to be touched, then a Golden Retriever is probably not the dog for you, even though Google might tell you that everyone should have one.
If you plan to adopt or purchase a purebred puppy or dog,…
…then learn about different breeds of dogs and pay attention to temperaments, energy levels, and what the dogs were originally bred for.
I like to glance at the AKC standard for a breed, but then find forums or articles written by people with personal experience with that breed too. Doing that often gives you more insight into that breed’s particular quirks, or if things have changed with temperament through breeding programs in the last decade.
If your dog is a mix of breeds,…
…then spend time learning about the various breeds in his mix too. Often times many of the traits from those breeds will combine to affect his temperament in a big way.
I know I keep harping on the importance of genetics. That does not mean that you cannot adopt a wonderful Heinz-57 mixed breed dog though. When you do, just be prepared for a bit of surprise and make sure that the temperament of that dog, as far as you can determine, fits in with your life. Do your due diligence where you can and commit to training if surprises come up. That should be true with any dog after all.
The most important thing to consider when it comes to your future pup is his temperament.
Temperaments are genetic.
If you are choosing a young puppy,…
…then doing a temperament assessment can help you decide which pup to take home from the litter. Furthermore, if you are getting a puppy from a breeder, then looking at your puppy’s parents will also tell you a lot.
If you have small kids, then choosing a puppy whose parents hate everyone they meet or are terribly timid is not a good plan. No matter how cute those puppies seems. Genetics are a thing.
If you are adopting an adult dog,…
…then get to know your future best friend’s temperament before you make the leap. As an adult, his temperament will generally be more set.
Some rescues foster the dogs, letting the foster owner get to know the dog for you first. Ask questions about the dog. Learn what you can from that person and be willing to walk away if it is not a good fit. Just because that dog is not a good fit for your household doesn’t mean that someone with different circumstances wouldn’t love the dog.
Try not to feel guilty for walking away.
What about Shelters?
Humane Societies and Kill Shelters are a bit trickier. You typically only get a short amount of time with the dog before you must decide whether to take him home.
Spend that time assessing how well he tolerates being touched, enjoys the interaction with people, and responds to the other dogs at the shelter.
If you have children, bring them along to see how he responds to them.
Ask the humane society worker if they have any background on the dog. Why was he turned in? The reason might not be a deal breaker for you, but if he was turned in because he was terrified of little kids and you have little kids, you need to know that.
Consider what types of things you would like to do with your future pup.
Do you want a dog who can learn every trick in the book but needs to be trained every day to keep him from eating house and home? Or, do you simply want a lazy couch potato, who barely knows his name but wouldn’t think about getting into mischief because it simply never crossed his mind?
There is a lot of truth in breed standards too.
Not all dogs will fit into a breed standard, but these standards are the criteria that different dogs are bred against to maintain certain traits that are necessary for that breed to perform the particular job that they were bred for.
For a Border Collie this means being highly intelligent, sensitive, and a bit OCD. It also means having enough physical endurance to herd all day long, and the agility to move quickly around livestock, close enough to the ground to avoid being kicked or run over.
A German Shepherd needs to be strong, alert, protective, intelligent, courageous, driven to work, and very loyal. They were bred for militant work and to be an all-around utilitarian dog. Those traits are important for that.
What will your life look like with your dog?
What kind of time and effort will you put into training your dog?
What types of activities would you like to do with your dog?
What types of things will your dog have to learn to be able to do those activities with you?
What will that dog need from you training-wise to be happy and not a crazy mess in your home?
Although it would be more pleasant to overlook this topic, health is something to consider when selecting a dog.
Certain breeds are prone to certain health issues.
Short-nosed breeds have breathing issues, issues with anesthesia sometimes, and are not very tolerant of cold and hot weather. Long bodied breeds, like Dachshunds, tend to have back problems. No surprise there!
Many of the most popular breeds are prone to hip dysplasia, cancer, vision issues, neurological issues, or heart problems. Look into these things.
Finding out a favorite breed only tends to live for five years because of genetic issues, or cost too much for you to care for might be a huge factor in your decision.
Learning about breed health helps you choose your breeder.
Does your breeder check the parents for the most common issues found in that breed before breeding them, to minimize the chance of puppies inheriting those health issues? If not, you probably want to find a different breeder.
Knowing what to look for helps you catch things early.
If your large breed dog is prone to bloat or arthritis, knowing that about him might save his life one day, or it might let you comfort him better in his old age.
For those of you who are worried that I am going to say that looks should not matter, do not fear!
I have been there myself. The truth is you should like the dog you choose on an emotional level. That does not mean that your dog needs to perfectly conform to the breed standard or look like Rin-Tin-Tin (unless your dog is competing in conformation shows, being bred to the standard, or is an actor).
You might like the scruffy mutt with the crooked ear better, but the point is you do like him.
…because there is a special sort of adoration that happens when you see or meet a dog and simply feel like he’s the one. Looks can be a part of that. I want you to weigh the other traits first though.
Let the dog’s looks to be just one of the deciding factors, rather than the only factor.
Body type also matters.
If you have a twenty-pound weight limit for dogs in your apartment, your choices will need to be limited to the dogs that meet that. If you want to go backpacking in the back-woods with your dog, then a Shih Tzu is probably not going to do. If you want to compete in flyball, then a Basset Hound is probably not the ideal choice, although there is a first for everything!
Think about the practical aspects of your life and decide if there are physical traits that your dog needs to have.
Finally, why are you adopting this dog?
Is it because you have a specific job for him to perform?
If you need a Service Dog, a dog for Therapy Work, a dog for cattle herding, for livestock guarding, or the next star on America’s Got Talent, then the truth is that just any dog will not do. There are certain breeds and individual dogs that are more cut out to perform certain jobs.
Again, genetics are a thing.
A dog’s breed heritage and parents do play a roll in the skills, temperament, physical traits, and special abilities that your dog will inherit. There can be exceptions to the rule. Your Pomeranian might out-scent all the bloodhounds, but that is an exception, not the rule. On the flip-side, just because your pup’s parents were stars, that does not guarantee that he will be one too. Genetics are a thing, but they are not the only thing, and genetics can be funny.
I especially encourage those needing a Service Dog to think long and hard about the power of genetics.
Online I often see mixed breed rescues being praised as Service Dogs. This pro-adopt message is normally a phenomenal one, but when it comes to Service Dogs, do be careful. Again genetics.
Adopting a puppy with unknown parentage, unknown breed heritage, unknown health history, and unknown size-potential from your local humane society to become your future Service Dog can lead to heartbreak.
Two years down the road it might become obvious that he has genetic traits that no amount of training can change.
That is especially true for Service Dogs that do scent or mental health-related work.
What about Current mixed-Breed Service Dogs?
There are rescued mixed-breed Service Dogs out there that are phenomenal!
However, those dogs are often well-socialized pets who turn out to have what it takes to becomes a Service Dog, or adult rescue dogs who were already predictable by the time they were assessed to see if they could become Service Dogs. One of those dogs might also have been twice as hard to train as another dog would have been, and not all owner-trainers can give that amount of time, effort, and money to bring about the same result.
Your mixed-breed puppy could absolutely turn out to be a phenomenal Service Dog, but a mixed-breed puppy is a much bigger gamble.