Selecting a Dog Breed
Copyright © 1996 by Amy Hendrix.
Updated 2001 by Cindy Moore.
Table of Contents
Whether you're thinking of getting a purebred dog or a mix, you should
take the time to do some research into dog breeds. If you're thinking
of a mix, it will make your shelter search much easier if you have in
mind "something like a lab" or "some kind of terrier." You will
know more about dogs having gone through the search. And if you think
you already know what breed you want, you may want to look at some of
these resources anyway--you may find that the perfect breed is something
you'd never considered before.
The Newsgroup rec.pets.dogs.breeds exists to
discuss the many breeds of dogs out there, and we're glad to offer
suggestions when you want to choose a breed. You can expect people in
the group to take your request seriously, and either suggest breeds or
point you toward resources which may help you choose for yourself. You
can -- and should -- also expect to hear the negatives as well as the
positives about a breed. This is not intended to scare you away, but you
should be really sure the breed you choose is the right one. There are
over 400 breeds of dog in the world, and no one breed is right for
You can help people advise you effectively if you give some information
And if you already have a few breeds in mind, don't forget to think
about the job they were bred for. There are only a few breeds that were
originally developed to be pets. Most dogs were originally bred to be
hunters, herders, guards, or some other job which might be at odds with what
you expect from a pet. If your garden is very important to you, you might
not want to get a terrier; almost all of them will dig. If you don't
have the time to exercise a dog, don't get a Dalmatian, any kind of Pointer
or retriever, or most Herding breeds -- all of these dogs were bred to go
for miles and miles without tiring, and even if there are no coaches to
guard, no birds to find, and no sheep to fetch, they still crave the
exercise and they'll find ways to let you know if they aren't getting enough.
(My two herding dogs are particularly fond of loud late-night
wrestling matches on any day when they don't get an hour or two of hard
exercise. I've learned to make sure they get the exercise instead.)
- What size is right for you?
Don't just ask for a
"good-sized" dog--for some people that means 25 pounds, for others it
means 75. If you can't figure out weights that exactly, are you looking
for something the size of a Cocker Spaniel or a German Shepherd Dog?
- How much space do you have?
This is related to the last
question, but not really dependent on it--it's quite possible to keep a
large dog in a small space, provided you can give it plenty of
opportunities for exercise outside the house or apartment. But keep in
mind that if your house is very small, a Newfoundland may take up all
the available floor space. On the other hand, some very large breeds
are quite inactive while their smaller cousins will be constantly on the
go. That Newf takes up the whole living room rug, but he might just do
better there than, say, a Jack Russell Terrier, an extremely active
- How much exercise can you give this dog?
Some can get by
with a short walk, others need to run for hours every day. Take an
honest look at what you're willing and able to do with your dog. Be sure to consider both your schedule and your athletic abilities: If you'd like an active dog but your work schedule keeps you busy 70 hours a week, don't get an active dog. He'd enjoy going for runs with you on weekends but he'd be miserable (and probably destructive) during the work week when you don't have time to exercise him.
- Where will the dog live?
A lot of people feel very
strongly that all dogs should live in the house, and just about any dog will
do well inside if it's given enough exercise. If your dog will be
spending a lot of time outside, you must consider your climate in
choosing a breed--some cannot tolerate heat, others are equally
incapable of being out in the cold. If your dog must live outside, be
sure that it has adequate (enclosed, covered, maybe even heated)
shelter, and make an extra effort to spend time with your dog. And
don't expect your big, black, heavily coated Bernese Mountain Dog to live outside in the summer sun!
- How much grooming are you willing to do?
Are you willing
to spend the time required to keep a long soft coat free of tangles and
mats? How about the money to have a dog professionally groomed on a
regular basis -- say, every 6 weeks for non-shedding breeds which need to
be clipped? Even dogs that are fairly low-maintenance can go through
periods of profuse shedding during which their coats need extra
attention. And all dogs, even hairless ones, need to have their nails,
eyes, and ears taken care of.
- What do you plan to do with your dog?
Do you want a
loyal couch potato? A jogging partner? A good watchdog? Or do you
want to start exploring the many activities you can do with your
dog--things like obedience, agility, hiking, herding, hunting or any of
the many others out there? This will affect your breed choice
because, for example, most toy breeds just don't make very good frisbee
- What past experience do you have with dogs?
question shouldn't be taken to suggest that you shouldn't get a dog if
you haven't already had one -- everyone has a first dog at some point.
But there are breeds that are not recommended for first-time owners. If
you have had dogs before, think about what you liked about them -- it can
be very useful information, since nobody would recommend a Border Collie
to someone who had always loved the relaxed attitude of Mom and Dad's
- If you have children, are you prepared to teach both children and
dog to co-exist peacefully?
Children and dogs can make a wonderful mix...or a very bad one. You need to
spend time training both the dog AND the children to treat each other
appropriately. A common question is "What breeds are good with kids?"
The answer is that it depends more on how the dog is raised and trained.
Supervision -- even for dogs good with children is a must. Just because
a dog is good with children is not licence for children to abuse the dog --
every dog will have its breaking point. If you are unsure of your ability
to properly train young puppies and/or children in this respect, you may
want to consider waiting until the children are older, or find an adult
dog known to be good with children and then supervise.
An ever-increasing number of breed-specific
FAQs (including most of the breeds mentioned here) is posted in r.p.d.info.
They are a very good resource, and they all give the negatives about their
breeds and not only the positives. They are an excellent place to start
researching a specific breed, and some of them are better than some breed
Even if your favorite breed is not among those FAQs, you should read
the FAQ entitled "Getting a
Dog." It goes into a lot more detail than this document can about
the steps you should take when you get a new dog. Also, depending on
whether you want an adult dog or a puppy, you should check out the "Your New Dog"
and/or "Your New
There are lots of breed books out there. Most of them are picture
books, which offer pictures and some very basic information about the
breeds, but little else. Here are three books which will give you more
direction as far as choosing a breed, with more detailed breed
descriptions including information on temperament, honest discussion of
the breed's problems, and help in making the decision.
Of these books, the Tortora book has the most detailed decision
procedure -- in it, you work through a series of questionnaires,
eliminating breeds until you are left with only a few by the end of the
book. It's in need of a revision, though -- it covers only 123
breeds recognized by the AKC as of the late '70s. Since that time, the
working group has split into the working and herding groups, and over a
dozen new breeds have been recognized -- and that's only in the AKC. There
are hundreds of non-AKC breeds in the world -- some of them may never be
seen in the US, but others are very popular and they need to be discussed.
- Hart, Lynette A. The Perfect Puppy. WH Freeman. 1987. ISBN
0-7167-1829-4. This covers only about 65 breeds' temperaments, but
makes a greater effort to be objective than some other sources. Lists
health defects in particular breeds.
- Lowell, Michele. Your Purebred Puppy: A Buyer's Guide. Holt
and Co. 1991. ISBN 0-8050-1892-1. Far more comprehensive than Hart's
book, with useful warnings about health defects to watch for in specific
- Tortora, Daniel F. The Right Dog For You. Fireside, Simon &
Schuster Trade Books. 1983. ISBN 0-671-47247-X. Offers a complex
decision procedure, with lots of questionnaires to alert you to the
potential significance of various features of breed behavior and
- Walkowicz, Chris. The Perfect Match. Howell Book House, 1996.
This one of the newest books on the subject, and one of the best. The
breed profiles are thorough, accurate, and up-to-date; for the first
time, every one of them is based on interviews with breeders and rescuers
involved in the breed. And unlike most of the other books in the field,
this one is written with style and a sense of humor.
More serious than the fact that Tortora leaves out breeds is the fact that
his breed profiles are badly out-of-date: Breeds rise and fall in
popularity amazingly fast, and that can seriously affect the
temperament seen by the average pet owner. There are breeds that are
dangerously popular now which were fairly rare 20 years ago, and some
breeds that were badly damaged by overbreeding then have gone a long way
toward recovery by now. In 1976, nobody had ever heard of a puppy-mill
Rottweiler; in 1996, Irish Setters are happy-go-lucky bird dogs once
again, and the sickly, unstable Setters that Tortora wrote about are seen
less and less often. Tortora also combines several breeds into one profile
whether they're truly similar breeds or not, and he occasionally uses very
dubious readings of the breed standards to make up descriptions where he
lacks personal experience: "According to the standard, Breed X seldom
does Y, from which we may infer that they sometimes do Y" is hardly an
adequate replacement for accurate information from people who know the breed
In spite of all the book's faults, I still recommend using Tortora's
questionnaires to figure out what characteristics you need in a dog,
especially if you don't have a lot of experience with dogs and you really
don't know what characteristics you will be able to tolerate. But refer to
Lowell and/or Walkowicz for a more complete and accurate set of
In looking at other dog
books -- and at information from breed clubs and advice from fanciers, for
that matter -- look for honest information about activity and temperament,
not just about sizes, coats, and colors.
Online Breed Resources
There are some very good resources on the net, as well as some pretty
poor ones. Unfortunately, the best will only help you when you've already
narrowed down your list considerably: The
Breed FAQs are
all written by people who know the breed in question and have written
about it honestly. They can go into much more detail than the one page
per breed in any of the all-breed dog books. And they generally point you
toward good sources of breed-specific information.
Even better are the breed
There are lists devoted to an amazing number of breeds, and every one I've
been on includes breeders, exhibitors, and knowledgeable pet owners who are
more than willing to talk all day about their dogs -- in fact, that's the
biggest problem with them. Some of them can be very high-volume. For that
reason, I don't recommend subscribing to dozens of different lists in order
to choose a breed, although you may find them helpful when you've narrowed
your choice down to two or three breeds.
There are also a growing number of breed-search databases online. When I
find one that I can honestly recommend, I'll be happy to link to it. But
I've tried out every one that I've heard about, and as of now they all have
major problems: one of them recommended a toy poodle when I asked for a
medium-sized dog to compete in herding trials; another seems to be
largely based on the premise that active dogs should live outside 24
hours a day, which is a very good way to get a bored, destructive active
dog who learns how to climb fences. Some of these machines ask as few as 5
questions, others seem to choose among as few as 25 breeds (although they
never make it clear up-front how many dogs are contained in the database).
So here's a challenge to pet-page developers: set up a database with
hundreds of dog breeds, with accurate profiles, and create a search form
which asks a large number of truly relevant questions, and if it passes my
tests, I'll put a link to it at the top of this page in big bold letters.
Until that link is up there, assume that online search forms are a fun
toy to play with but don't ever buy a dog based on their recommendation
until you've done a lot more research.
Go to a dog show in your area. You can't learn everything
about a breed when you see it at a show, but it's a good way to get a
handle on which breed is which, and a good way to meet local breeders if
you've already chosen a breed.
If you can't get to a show, try to meet some adult dogs of your
breed in the flesh -- more than one, if you can find them. Do you know
someone who has a dog of your new favorite breed? Does a friend of a
friend have a dog you can
meet? Is there a dog park, dog beach, or dog run in your area where
you could meet some dogs and ask lots of questions?
Never buy a dog just because you liked its picture in a
Get in touch with the national breed clubs ("parent club") for the
breeds you like. They will send you information packets on their breed, and
they will put you in touch with local clubs and breeders.
Also, find out if there's an all-breed Kennel Club in your area
(the AKC can
put you in touch) -- it's a good way to meet local breeders and their
dogs, and to find out about dog activities going on in your area. Find
out if your local club has a breeder referral service -- if they do, the
breeders they refer you to will be those who breed according to the
club's code of ethics.
Purebred dogs certainly have temperamental as well as physical traits
that are typical of their breeds. After all, breeds were created for
specific purposes; keep the dog's original job in mind when you watch
its behavior, and don't be surprised when your new Malamute loves to
pull. But you should also remember that every dog is an individual.
When books or people on a newsgroup say "Sock Retrievers make good
hunters" or "Carolina Temple Dogs are good watchdogs", they're talking
about the average for the breed, but any individual in a breed may vary
widely from that average. Pick your individual dog carefully, and don't
be afraid to ask the breeder or rescue group or shelter staff lots of
questions about your individual dog's temperament.
Whatever breed or mix you choose, remember that no breed is perfect. If
anyone -- whether it's a book, a breeder, or a poster to a newsgroup tells
you that an entire breed has no health or temperament problems,
get a second opinion. All breeds have problems, and
someone who really cares about the improvement of their breed will be
aware of them and tell you what they're doing to ameliorate them. Do
lots of research so you can be prepared to ask about the problems
specific to your chosen breed, whatever it is. Again, these negatives
are not meant to scare you away from a breed, but to let you know what
to expect -- Akitas, for instance, are beautiful, noble, dignified animals;
but you'd be in for some trouble if you got one without knowing that
many of them tend toward aggressiveness and therefore need a great deal
of training and careful handling. This doesn't mean that Akitas can't
be wonderful pets, but only that you have to be prepared to do the work
they need and deserve when you get one.
All dogs should be trained -- the small ones as
well as the big ones. A puppy kindergarten or basic obedience class
will help you socialize your dog and teach her basic manners, it will
make her a better companion, and will help you bond better when you're
first getting to know each other.
Don't think that getting a dog with a reputation for being smart will
get you out of training, either -- highly intelligent dogs usually need more
training than the others rather than less, since they tend to use their
fuzzy brains to get themselves in trouble. All dogs deserve
training and some work to do, but the smartest ones will make work for
themselves if they aren't given any, usually at the expense of your house and
A steady, well-behaved, housebroken, quiet, loyal dog doesn't come out
of nowhere, but it can be found in any breed -- if the owner is willing to
work at developing that relationship.
Good Luck, Be a Responsible Dog Owner
... and Have Fun with your New Dog!
Selecting A Dog Breed FAQ
Copyright © 1996 by Amy Hendrix