Finding a puppy: Picking the right breed of dog

There are many things to consider when choosing a puppy, including which breed or type, and the optimal age of acquisition. Obviously, you want to choose a dog that is best suited to you and your lifestyle. Rather than listing my preferences, I will discuss some of the more important guidelines.

First, please do not kid yourself that all you have to do is select the “perfect” breed and the “perfect” individual puppy and he will automatically grow up into the “perfect” adult dog. Any puppy can become a marvelous companion if appropriately socialized and trained. And, no matter what his breed or breeding, any puppy can become a doggy delinquent if not properly socialized and trained. Please make an intelligent, researched choice when selecting your puppy, but remember: appropriate socialization and training is the single biggest factor determining how closely the dog will approach your view of perfection in adulthood.

Second, seek advice from the best sources. Common mistakes are to take breed advice from veterinarians, health advice from breeders, and all-important behavior and training advice from veterinarians, breeders, and pet-store personnel. The best plan is to seek training and behavior advice from trainers and behavior counselors, health advice from veterinarians, breed advice from breeders, and product advice from pet-store personnel. And if you really want to know what’s going on, check out a local puppy class and chat with the owners; they’ll give you the cold, hard facts regarding what it’s really like to live with a puppy.

Third, seek advice from several sources and evaluate all advice carefully. Apply the common sense principle: does it make sense to you? Is the advice relevant to your family and your lifestyle? Whereas most advice is sound, some can be irrelevant, hypocritical, preachy or questionable. And occasionally, “advice” can be just downright bad.

Example 1: One breeder told a couple they could not buy a puppy unless they had a fenced yard and one of them was home all day. Yet the breeder herself had no fenced yard and her twenty or so dogs lived in crates in a kennel a good forty yards away from her house and any hope of human companionship. Duh!??

Example 2: Many people are advised not to get a large dog if they live in an apartment. On the contrary! As long as they receive regular walks, large dogs make wonderful apartment companions. Compared with smaller dogs, large dogs often settle down better and bark less. Many little dogs exasperate owners and neighbors by being active and noisy, and running amuck. Smaller dogs make wonderful apartment companions, however, so long as they are trained to settle down and shush.

Example 3: Many veterinarians advise that Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are the best dogs with children. All breeds of dog can make good companions for children, provided that they have been trained how to act around children, and provided that the children have been taught how to act around dogs! Otherwise, dogs-including Goldens and Labs-are likely to be frightened and irritated by children, or excited and incited by their antics.

Remember, you are selecting a puppy to live with you for a good long time. Choosing a puppy to share your life is a very personal choice-your choice. You will save yourself a lot of unnecessary problems and heartbreak if your choice is an informed and educated one.

In reality, though, people seldom pay heed to well-meaning advice and usually end up choosing with heart instead of head. Indeed, many people end up choosing a dog along the same lines as they might choose a lifelong human companion: based on coat color, conformation, and cuteness. But regardless of the many reasons for selecting a particular puppy-whether pedigree, conformation, cuteness, or general health-the success of the endeavor ultimately depends almost entirely on the pup’s education regarding appropriate behavior and training.

Mixed breed or purebred?

Again, this decision is a personal choice that only you can make. The most obvious difference is that pure breeds are more predictable in terms of looks and behavior, whereas each mixed breed is utterly unique-one of a kind.

Regardless of your personal preference for attractiveness, attentiveness, and activity, you would do well to consider general health and life expectancy. By and large, due to lack of inbreeding, mixed breeds are healthier genetic stock; they tend to live longer and have fewer health problems. On the other hand, at a pure-breed kennel, it is possible to check out the friendliness, basic manners, general health, and life expectancy of several generations of your prospective puppy’s forebears.

Which dog breed?

I am strongly opposed to suggesting breeds for people. Recommending specific breeds may sound like helpful and harmless advice, but it is insidiously dangerous and not in the best interests of dogs or of dog-owning families. Advice either for or against specific breeds often leads owners to believe that training is either unnecessary or impossible. Thus many poor dogs grow up without an education.

Breed recommendations often lead unsuspecting owners to believe that once they have selected the right breed, there is nothing more to do. Thinking they have the best possible breed, many owners suffer the misconception that training is unnecessary and so don’t bother. This, of course, is when things start to go downhill.

Even more disturbing, when certain breeds are recommended, other breeds are automatically being advised against. “Experts” often suggest that certain breeds are too big, too small, too active, too lethargic, too fast, too slow, too smart, or too dumb, and therefore too difficult to train. Well, we know that regardless of helpful “advice,” people are probably going to pick the breed they wanted in the first place. But now they may feel disinclined to train the puppy, feeling that the process is going to be difficult and time consuming. Furthermore, owners may rationalize their negligence by citing any one of the pack of convenient excuses listed above.

Breed is a very personal choice. Choose the breed you like, investigate breed-specific qualities and problems, and then research the best way to raise and train your pup. If you select what others consider an easy breed to raise and train, train your pup so that he becomes the very best individual-an ambassador-of that breed. And if you select a breed that some people consider difficult to raise and train, train him, train him, and train him, so that he becomes the very best example-an ambassador-of that breed.

Regardless of your eventual choice, and certainly once you have made it, success or failure is now entirely in your hands. Your puppy’s behavior and temperament now depend completely on good husbandry and training.

When evaluating different breeds, the good points are obvious. What you need to find out are the breed’s bad points. You need to investigate potential breed-specific (or line-specific) problems and to know how to deal with them. If you want to find out more about a specific breed, find at least six adult dogs of the breed you have selected. Talk to their owners at length, but most importantly, meet the dogs! Examine and handle them; play with them and work them. See if the dogs welcome being petted by a stranger-you. Will they sit? Do they walk nicely on leash? Are they quiet or noisy? Are they calm and collected, or are they hyperactive and rambunctious? Can you examine their ears, eyes, and rear end? Can you open their muzzle? Can you get them to roll over? Are the owners’ houses and gardens still in good condition? And most important, do the dogs like people and other dogs?

Learn what to expect, because when your eight-week-old puppy comes home, he will grow up with frightening speed. In just four month’s time your pup will develop into a six-month-old adolescent that has gained almost adult size, strength, and speed, while at the same time retaining many puppy constraints on learning. Your puppy has so much to learn before he collides with impending adolescence.

In terms of personality, behavior, and temperament, please be aware that dogs of the same breed may show considerable variation. If you have siblings or more than one child you probably appreciate the incredible range of temperaments and personalities of children from the same parents. Dogs are similar. Indeed, there may be as much variation of behavior among individuals of the same litter as there is among dogs of different breeds.

Environmental influences (socialization and training) exert a far greater impact on desired domestic behavior and temperament than genetic heredity. For example, the temperamental differences between a good (educated) Malamute and a bad (uneducated) Malamute or between a good Golden Retriever and a bad Golden Retriever are much greater than temperamental differences between a Golden and a Malamute with an equivalent experiential and educational history. A dog’s education is always the biggest factor determining its future behavior and temperament.

Please make sure you fully understand the above paragraph. I am not saying training necessarily has a greater effect on dog behavior than genetic heredity. Rather, I am stating quite categorically that attaining a desired domestic dog behavior is almost entirely dependent on socialization and training. For example, dogs bark, bite, urine mark, and wag their tails largely for genetic reasons-because they are dogs. The frequency of their barks, however, the severity of their bites, the location of their urine marks, and the enthusiasm of their tail wags depends pretty much on the nature of their socialization and training. Your dog’s domestic success is in your hands.

Don’t be fooled by dog movie stars

When selecting a breed, don’t be duped by celebrity dogs appearing in films or on television. These dogs are highly trained canine actors. In fact, Lassie has been played by at least eight different canine actors. The dogs are acting, and often the requirements of their role mask their true breed and individual characteristics. This is no different from Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and C. S. Lewis in Shadowlands-two very different roles, and both of them completely different from what we may suppose is the real Anthony Hopkins. It’s acting, and in a sense you need to teach your puppy how to act-that is, how to act appropriately in a variety of domestic settings, such as the living room and the park.

Eddie (Moose) appears to be calm and controlled on the set of Frasier, because Moose the actor was trained to be calm and controlled to play the role of Eddie. Moreover, Eddie’s endearing television demeanor and his acquired social savvy, charming manners, and acting skills have successfully overcome his original delinquent disposition.

Puppy or adult dog?

Before rushing ahead and getting a puppy, it’s a good idea to at least consider the pros and cons of adopting an adult dog. There are certainly several advantages to getting a pup, the foremost being you may mold the puppy’s behavior and temperament to suit your own particular lifestyle. This, of course, presumes you know how to train and have the time to do it. Sometimes you might not. And so in a lot of ways an adolescent or adult dog with a Kennel Club obedience title and a Canine Good Citizenship Test may make a more suitable companion-especially for a two-income family whose members barely have the time to get together as a family themselves.

Additionally, a two-year-old (or older) adult dog’s habits, manners, and temperament are already well established, for better or for worse. Traits and habits may change over time, but compared with the behavioral flexibility of young puppies, an older dog’s good habits are as resistant to change as their bad habits. Consequently, it is possible to test drive a number of adult shelter dogs and select one free of problems and with an established personality to your liking.

Adopting an adult dog from an animal shelter or rescue organization can be a marvelous alternative to raising a puppy. Some shelter and rescue dogs are well-trained and simply need a home. Others have a few behavior problems and require remedial puppy education in adulthood. Some dogs are purebred; most are mixed breeds. The key to finding a good shelter or rescue dog is selection, selection, selection! Take plenty of time to test drive each prospective candidate. Each dog is unique.

If you still have your heart set on raising and training a puppy, do make sure you educate yourself beforehand. Only search for a puppy after you have learned how to raise and train one. Remember, it takes only a few weeks to ruin an otherwise perfect puppy.

Please ask yourself, “Where do shelter dogs come from?” All shelter dogs were once perfect puppies that were abandoned or surrendered because they developed annoying behavior, training, and temperament problems, simply because their owners did not know how to train them.

The sequence of events is utterly predictable: too much initial freedom and too little supervision and education all but teach a newly acquired puppy to chew household articles and eliminate in the house. In the owner’s attempt to manage these common and foreseeable problems, the puppy is relegated outdoors, where he quickly becomes de-socialized and develops other annoying habits, such as barking, digging, and escaping. After spending day after day in social isolation, the puppy is so excited when asked indoors that he enthusiastically runs around, barks, and jumps up to greet his long-lost human companions. Soon, the overly rambunctious pup is no longer allowed indoors at all. Either he is captured by animal control after he escapes from solitary confinement, or neighbors complain about his excessive barking and he is confined to the garage or basement-usually only a temporary measure before the now unwanted adolescent dog is surrendered or abandoned. And he is barely six months old.

All behavior, temperament, and training problems are so utterly predictable, and so easily preventable. Even most existing problems may be resolved fairly easily. Education is the key.

Whether you decide to get a puppy or adopt an adult dog, please get your puppy or dog neutered. There are simply too many unwanted dogs. Millions are euthanized each year; please don’t add to the numbers.

Excerpted from Before You Get Your Puppy, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.