Selecting a Dog Breed


Amy Hendrix.
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 everyone.

You can help people advise you effectively if you give some information up-front:

Questions to consider when you're looking for a dog

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.)



An ever-increasing number of breed-specific FAQs (including most of the breeds mentioned here) is posted in 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 books.

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 Puppy" FAQs.


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.

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 well.

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 breed descriptions.

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 e-mail lists. 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.

Dog Shows, Clubs, and Breeders

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 book.

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.

Once you've found your dog

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 yard.

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
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