Choosing a new dog can be exciting yet overwhelming. Thankfully, there are lots of resources out there to help you narrow down the right type of dog for you. This could be a particular breed, a combination of breeds, or even a mutt so mixed that contributing breeds can't be determined. Once you've decided the type of dog you're interested in, then comes an even more important decision: How do you pick the right individual dog?
Sure, Labrador Retrievers are loyal, playful and popular, but how do you know the one you're picking isn't the mutant exception to the rule that will turn your life into a nightmare? (Remember Marley and Me?)
Here are some tried-and-true tips to help you pick not just the right dog breed, but the right dog.
Mail-order brides are a thing of the past (mostly.) Very few people would feel comfortable inviting someone into their home as a life-long companion, sight unseen. The same principle applies to your future dog companion.
Many people settle on a certain breed of dog, then do an online search for breeders. Typically, the breeder with the cutest puppy pictures wins. Too often, a new puppy is chosen simply because a certain breeder had one available. You may get to see some pictures, and a subjective (and usually biased towards the positive) description of the puppy's personality. And hey, it may work out.
Or, it could turn out like our neighbors' new dog. They spent over $1000 on a Newfoundland puppy from a world-renowned breeder that was 1200 miles away. They were lucky to even get a puppy as soon as they did, such was the demand for this breeder's dogs. Six months later, the Newfie was taking over their house with drool, hair and destructive behaviors. He was not friendly towards people outside of the family. They decided to give the dog a fair chance with training classes and more. But by the time a year rolled around, they were desperately trying to give the dog away.
The takeaway: Getting to spend actual time with the actual dog before you make the purchase is the most important thing in choosing a new dog, regardless of breed.
Another thing to consider - getting a dog from across the country could very well mean you're buying a dog from a puppy mill. Puppies produced in these factory-like settings may have parents that spend their whole lives in wire cages and receive minimal, if any care. Puppies born into this environment aren't socialized with people. There are tons of horror stories a people believing they are buying dogs from a reputable breeder only to find they have a very sick puppy requiring tons of veterinary care with considerable bills.
Many people have this romanticized notion of having a regal, purebred dog with perfect bloodlines. Too often, this is more about making a statement than finding a great dog. Much of the time, purebred dogs are more disease prone, can be less friendly and maybe even less intelligent than the simple mutt. Why? Overbreeding.
Many breeders are more concerned about profit than making sure dogs are bred ethically. Purebreds are often the result of inbreeding between limited genetic stock. Without variations in genetic lineage, genetic weaknesses get reinforced instead of getting weeded out naturally.
Apparently Mother Nature knows better than breeders. Nature may not always produce the most elegant dogs, but they're less prone to physical and personality disorders than a given dog show winner.
The takeaway: You can save money and may have better odds with a shelter dog.
You should always spend a good amount of time with the dog you are considering before making a choice. This applies regardless of where you get the dog. This allows you to get a feel for the dog's personality. After all, you could be with this dog for 10+ years. Shouldn't you take the time to get to know your potential family member first?
Either way, the dog has to match your lifestyle. If you sit at home all day, you don't want to pick a hyper-active pet. If you are always going places and expect your dog to be with you, be sure your dog can keep up.
If you have kids, this is a crucial question. It's a good ideas to bring the kids along when making a choice. Of course, you may want to screen a candidate on your own first so the kids aren't choosing on the cuteness factor alone.
Watch a dog's reaction to your kids. Does the dog avoid them? Get excited around them? Does the dog seem patient or uncomfortable with the unpredictable antics of kids? Of course, you will be supervising their interactions both now and if you bring the dog home, but the initial first impression is important.
If you're buying a puppy, it's a good idea to observe how she plays with other dogs in the litter. Does she play on the same level as the others? Or does she have to dominate all other dogs? Or does she shy away and avoid interaction? If you already have a dog or cat, it's also wise to bring the pet with seniority along to see how they get along. This may not be practical with your cat, but the breeder can tell you if the puppy has been raised with cats. Shelters often do a "cat test" to see if a dog is compatible for a home with felines.
It's amazing the difference you can see in personality just by observing how a dog treats his surroundings. Often, the dog's housing area is a microcosm of what your house may look like once the pup comes home. Of course, puppies are typically chewers until a certain age. However, if the dog seems to tear things up more than those around him, it could mean trouble.
Also, keep in mind that this observation isn't always possible. You may have just arrived after a thorough cleaning, so if all kennels look like they've never even been lived in, don't rely on this observation. You might ask to bring in a toy to see how aggressive of a chewer the dog is.
The takeaway: Time spent together before the adoption is better than time spent wishing you had gotten a different dog.
This varies tremendously even within breeds. This is also a tough one to judge in typical dog adoption venues. Dogs from a breeder will have a high level social interaction given the number of playmates in that setting. But that environment may differ from yours when you bring the dog home.
Shelter dogs are often just plain neglected, so even reclusive dogs are often eager to see human affection. Nevertheless, it's important to try to gauge if the dog is a good match with the level of attention you (or your family) can give.
Is the potential pup not happy until someone is petting him all the time? Or does the dog care less as to what's going on around him? Be sure you evaluate how well the social interaction needs of you and your new dog match up.
The takeaway: It's not easy, but pay attention to how needy the dog seems, and be sure you can deliver.
In the end, it comes down to the individual dog, not the breed. Sure, you might decide a particular breed has the qualities you're looking for. But ultimately, each dog is different, even within a litter or breed. A pedigreed dog may seem like a status symbol, but a mutt might very well be your best companion.
You're going to be spending years with an individual dog's personality and quirks, not some perfect photo from the AKC's database.