Decisions, decisions, decisions!

Some considerations in choosing the right dog

A brainstorming session to set some parameters on critical characteristics for the dog that will share your home is an invaluable aid to making a good selection. Decisions on size, coat type, potential health problems, ease of training, need for exercise, behavior, temperament, and attitude made before you see that litter of pups or visit a pet store or shelter will help make a good decision on the animal that will share your home.


Generally, a large dog is not suitable for an apartment, for elderly owners, or for mild-mannered women. However, some large, agile dogs adapt well to apartment or condo living as long as they get a daily walk, and some are gentle enough that anyone with a firm voice and manner can easily handle them. Small dogs may be unsuitable for families with active children or elderly or infirm relatives who could trip over a small, bouncy critter.

Coat type

Long-coated and double-coated dogs shed, shed, and shed some more, leaving tufts of hair to float about the house and land everywhere. Meticulous housekeepers and folks with little or no time for grooming will be happier with dogs that don't accessorize the living room with dog-hair dust bunnies a couple of times a year. Double-coated dogs may also have longer, stiffer guard hairs that can penetrate bare feet like splinters.

Brushing is needed to remove the dead hair from wire-coated terriers, poodles, and poodle relatives, and professional grooming is necessary to maintain texture and color in wirehaired terriers. These breeds are generally better than heavily shedding breeds for owners with allergies.

Dogs with oily outer coats can develop a doggy odor that can be unpleasant, dogs with heavy coats may suffer in southern climes, and dogs with short coats may shiver in the north.

Potential health problems

Although purebred dogs are sometimes denigrated as harboring all sorts of genetic abnormalities and mixed breed dogs are sometimes claimed to be healthier than their purebred cousins, the truth is that all dog have the same range of health problems. Some of these problems are genetic, some result from exposure to disease or parasites, and some are the result of non-inherited birth defects or injuries. Joint problems, including hip and elbow dysplasia and loose kneecaps; eye problems; cancers; skin diseases; heart and other organ diseases; and more affect canines of every size and background. Some dogs have additional problems caused by short muzzles, long backs, giant or diminutive size, or other physical features.

Training ease

Some breeds are fairly easy to train, and some are quite difficult. The breeds that were designed to work independently of man and those that were developed to guard livestock or kill vermin require lots of persistence and firmness for training while those that work closely with their owners are easier to teach.

If you lack time and patience to deal with a dog that is difficult to train, then an older dog from a rescue service may fit your bill as well as a pup of a breed that is traditionally easier to train. Intelligence is not necessarily an indicator of trainability; smart dogs often have their own agenda and require firmness of purpose on the part of their owners.

As a rule, terriers, hounds, and northern dogs are tough to train because of their intelligence and independent natures, and sporting and herding dogs are easier to train. The sharpest-working obedience breeds are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Shetland Sheepdogs, breeds that developed to closely with humans.

Exercise needs

Some dogs are lethargic and others are very energetic. Active families would be happier with a pet that can jog, hike, and play ball, and more sedate folks would most likely prefer a quieter animal. Cute as they are, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and Corgis are not jogging companions, and Airedales, German Shepherds, and Border Collies are not typical couch potatoes.

All dogs need some exercise to stay healthy. Most adult dogs will not exercise themselves, so time for walks and other activities is important.

Yards and gardens

Dogs can be destructive to gardens, lawns, and landscape plantings. They urinate on lawns or shrubs, roll in flowers, chomp on vegetables and branches, dig holes, and generally cause havoc unless they are restrained from doing so. Sturdy fences will keep dogs from entering gardens if they are tall enough. Some dog owners use underground radio fences for this purpose. Repellent sprays are also available, but some dogs are actually attracted by the scent and are delighted to grind it and the flowers or vegetable plants into their bodies.

However, dogs can also be helpful in the garden. Check out "Gardening with canine assistance" for more information or purchase Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs by Cheryl Smith.

Noise factor

Some dogs bark. A lot. Terriers and scent hounds use their voices to broadcast their progress in chasing prey animals. Shelties and Collies bark to tell the sheep to git back to the barn. Canaan Dogs bark to alert their families to potential intruders. Barking dogs do not endear owners to their neighbors in apartments, condominiums, and close-knit suburbs. Too much barking can lead to noise laws or even pet limit laws. Thus owners of barking dogs must be extra vigilant in preventing their pets from becoming a neighborhood nuisance.

Many dogs will bark if they are bored, so owners should also be sure to assess their own time and ability for training, walking, and playtimes, and should properly confine the dog when they cannot otherwise keep it from disturbing the neighbors. (There are some special collars available to deter barking dogs and some training methods that can help in some cases, but if potential owners take the noise factor into consideration, problems are more likely to be minimized.)

Temperament, etc.

Breed and group temperament can be described, but there is latitude within that description for individuality. Thus Akitas are declared to be tough animals, loyal, aloof, dominant, aggressive to other animals, and often challenging. However, many Akitas are sweet and cuddly, love small critters, will climb in laps if allowed, and are anything but aloof and dominant.

Terriers are scrappy, yappy, tough, and independent, but Airedale Terriers bond very closely to their humans and are somewhat protective. Hounds follow their eyes or noses and are often oblivious to human presence, but Dachshunds bond closely with their families and Greyhounds and Whippets are sweet, gentle pets.

Deciding on a breed of dog is at least as important as deciding on the right wardrobe for business, the right car, the right school for the kids. A dog is a part of the family for a dozen or more years; the commitment to feed, shelter, and nurture a family friend for that amount of time should be based on rigorous analysis of an appropriate breed for the family circumstances.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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