Choosing a dog is one of the most important decisions you will make in the next ten to 15 years. You are, after all, selecting a companion and room/housemate who will, with any luck, continue to bring you joy and comfort for a very long time. The decisions you make now will come back to you time and again as your puppy matures into a dog…in the living room, in the backyard, at any doggy event you attend, and at the veterinarian’s office. So put at least as much time and study into the process as you do when buying a car or computer!
Decisions begin as soon as it crosses your mind that you might want to add a dog to your life. Since you are reading this, you’ve apparently decided on the predictability and reliability of a purebred. But that’s just the beginning! Breeder, shelter, or rescue? Puppy or adult? Male or female? And that’s before you even begin to think about which of the several hundred breeds you want to consider.
It seems overwhelming, but if you break it down into lists of questions to ask, the choices begin to narrow until you end up taking home the perfect dog for you.
Are you ready for a dog or puppy?
The first questions are both the most important and the easiest because they are all about you.
Does everyone I live with agree on getting a dog?
If the answer is no, this idea is a nonstarter! Regardless of your intention to take on 100 percent of the dog care, your family or friends will be interacting with the dog and most likely providing care when you are unable to.
Why do I want a dog? What do I plan to do with him?
You want companionship, of course, but beyond that, will you be walking, running, hiking, camping, hunting, participating in dog sports like agility and obedience competition or in conformation showing…or do you really just want a couch buddy? Do you need a watch dog or would you prefer one who welcomes everyone into your home?
Do I have time for a dog?
If you are away 10-12 hours a day, bring a lot of work home, travel a lot, or are involved in a time-consuming hobby, the answer is no unless there is someone else at home. Dogs are pack animals and social creatures. It’s unfair to expect one to sit at home alone all day, half the night, and on weekends. If you are determined, you can work out an alternative arrangement. Check out doggy daycare. Maybe a neighbor can keep your pup during the day. A dog walker who will spend time playing with your dog as well as walking him can work. Perhaps you can work from home for a few hours a day. But too much alone time often leads to an unhappy, neurotic dog.
Can I afford a dog?
Consider not only the purchase price, but food, vet costs, grooming, equipment, toys, supplies, obedience classes, etc. You can cut corners on some of these things, but not all. Some costs will vary depending on the age of your dog, the size, and grooming requirements. You’ll need some disposable income to finance your new buddy.
Do I have lots of patience and flexibility, as well as a good sense of humor?
Is my lifestyle apt to change significantly in the next 10 to 15 years?
You can’t predict the future, but you should have some idea of how you will be living in five, 10, and 15 years. Do you want a family, or will your children be “grown and gone” by then? Children will affect not only the type of dog you get, but the timing. Don’t buy a dog just for the kids if they will be leaving for college or work in three or four years. Or do you want to travel extensively or move overseas? Boarding a dog for long periods is expensive and hard on the dog. If moving, you can certainly take your dog with you, but check into the costs and complications of doing so. And will your new life be suitable for a dog? If you can see five years down the road but ten is in a heavy fog, consider an adult dog. Seniors make the best pets!
Will my landlord or homeowners association allow a dog? How about pet deposits?
Are there size limitations or any breed restrictions?Are you allowed to build a fence? People often try to “slide by” restrictions but that seldom ends well for anyone.
Are my children ready for a dog and do they know how to behave around one?
Children should never be left alone with a dog unsupervised, no matter how well behaved they both are! A mother with an infant or toddler should think carefully about the demands of a dog. A puppy can’t wait until you finish diapering the baby! Some mothers can deal with the additional chaos a puppy brings and some should probably wait till the kids are in school! If you will not be able to supervise your puppy, especially when the children are around, you are not ready for puppy ownership yet. An adult dog who loves children might be an option.
Choosing Your Breed
The American Kennel Club registers nearly 200 breeds of dogs, from the popular Labrador Retriever to the rare Norwegian Lundehund. Which is right for you? Choosing a dog based on appearance alone works out just about as well as choosing a spouse that way. It doesn’t! But as a starting point, go to www.akc.org or consult AKC’s Complete Dog Book and make a list of the dogs that appeal to you physically. Then talk to breeders, people who own them, and veterinarians for varying views. Ask yourself the following questions,
Does anyone in the household have allergies, asthma, or physical limitations?
These might affect the type of dog that will fit. No dog is hypoallergenic, but some have a nonshedding coat, which has less effect on people with allergies. (It is actually the dander, which is attached to the hair, that is the allergen.) Check the AKC site for a list of nonshedding breeds.
What size dog do I want and how large does this breed get?
Remember that cute Teddy bear of a puppy may grow into a 200 lb dog. Can you deal with a dog that size? On the other hand, is a tiny dog a reasonable addition to your household? Young children may be too rough or clumsy for a fragile toy dog.
How much exercise does the breed require?
Can you provide regular exercise for your dog? How much? If you’re a couch potato, coming home to a dog ready to go-go-go and go again is not going to be much fun for either of you. Remember though that some large dogs are much less active than small ones!
How much bathing and grooming does this breed need? Is odor a problem? Shedding?
Will you be willing to groom weekly or even daily? Or can you afford to pay someone to handle these chores on a regular basis? Is doggy odor going to be a problem? Some breeds are much more “odoriferous” than others. Will dog hair on the furniture drive your spouse crazy? Most dogs shed some and some dogs shed a lot. A quick daily rubdown or light brushing will keep house hair at a minimum and some dogs even love to be vacuumed with a grooming attachment. But hair is definitely a consideration when choosing your breed.
Does this breed bark a lot?
If you are in an apartment or close neighborhood, this could be extremely important. Though individual dogs within a breed vary, some breeds are well known for having an opinion on everything and expressing it freely, Most dogs will bark at another dog or the UPS man, but some bark at trees, the air, and a wall as well!
What is the breed’s temperament like? What makes it different?
What is this breed like to live with? Some are barkers, some have high prey drive, some snore, some jump or climb, some are graceful and athletic, some are clumsy, some are laidback, some never stand still! Read all you can about temperament and personality, talk to breeders, visit some dogs of the breeds you are considering, and, perhaps most important, talk to owners.
As a rule, are they good with children?
Some are, some aren’t. No child should be left alone unsupervised with any breed, but some dogs are better equipped than others to handle a pinch or a pull from a toddler. Regardless of the breed you choose, make sure your dog has a place of his own to escape the children!
How protective is the breed and will that work in my household?
If you have people in and out on a regular basis, you don’t want a highly protective breed. Your kids have friends over often? Find a breed that loves people and noise. A dog who is suspicious of strangers is not your best choice if you love to entertain or run a business from home. If you’re home alone a lot though, a dog who “keeps an eye on things” can be a real comfort. (A personal protection dog, however, requires professional training and is beyond the scope of this article.)
What health problems does the breed have and what is its average lifespan?
All dogs (mixed breeds included) have some hereditary issues. Lifespans vary from 6 or 7 years to 15 and up! Go to your prospective breed’s parent club (also called a breed club) website and look for a list of recommended health tests. Most are ”screenings” for the parents to ensure that they are not affected by common genetic problems of the breed. Some breeds require testing of the puppies themselves. For example, a dog with a heart problem may not show symptoms until he is five or older, so testing him as a pup wouldn’t help. In his case, making sure his parents are not affected (and ideally his grandparents as well) is the best you can do. On the other hand, some eye defects are identifiable at a very early age. If your breed is afflicted with one of those diseases, checking the puppies at eight weeks or so is certainly worthwhile.
Remember that all dogs, including mixed breeds, have genetic defects. Some affect lifespans. Some are much less critical and will have little to no effect on a pet dog. Do your research!
Find Your Breeder
Choosing your breeder is even more important than choosing your puppy. Why? Because just about any puppy from a good breeder will grow up into a great dog. But even the best puppy from a bad breeder can cost you much money, much time, and many tears addressing health and temperament problems. A good breeder is with you through the life of your puppy. Call her five years after you take your pup home and she is likely to know immediately who you are, what your dog’s name is, and who his parents are. A bad breeder forgets you as soon as your check clears. Call her with a problem and she’ll spend lots of time with you…explaining how the problem is your own fault!
So where do you find a good breeder and how do you know when you’ve found one? The very best referral is from someone who owns a happy, healthy representative of your breed. If that is not possible, you begin the search from scratch.
In addition to this site, the AKC Marketplace lists breeders, as do some breed clubs and state dog club federations. Search for all of these online. You can find breeders at dog shows and performance events or on the internet, but wherever you find one, it is up to you to determine whether this is the person you want raising your puppy. USDA regulations prevent most breeders from selling puppies sight unseen, so be prepared to take a trip to meet the breeder in person.
Here are some considerations for your search. Ask yourself:
Do I like this person? Will I feel comfortable calling with questions or problems?
This is one of the most important questions. Unlike buying a car or computer, purchasing a puppy is the beginning of a personal relationship. Your breeder is your best resource to call with questions, to consult if you encounter problems, and often, just to share funny puppy stories and cute pictures!
Is her home/kennel clean?
Puppies are messy, but any indication that their environment is not regularly cleaned is a deal breaker. Most small-scale breeders keep their dogs in their homes, not in an outside building. You’re not looking for a Better Homes and Gardens housekeeper, but the home should not horrify you when you walk in the door!
Do the puppies appear healthy, happy and well-socialized? How about the mother?
The mother may be a little thin from nursing. Remember that some breeds are less friendly to strangers than others and some mothers may be protective of their puppies, But in general, the dogs should appear happy and relaxed after you’ve been there awhile.
Does this breeder talk about the challenges of the breed as well as the positive traits?
No breed is right for everyone! Does this breed bark a lot? Can it be allowed off leash sometimes? Are these dogs hard to housetrain? Are they “Velcro” dogs who need to be with you constantly or are they more independent? Are they affectionate or aloof? Are they easy to train or a bit stubborn? How are they with strangers? With children? Think of the traits that are important to you and ask about those.
Does she know the genetic health issues and does she talk frankly about them? Have the parents been screened?
Another critical question. If she tells you there are no health problems, she is not the expert you’d hoped she would be. All dogs (and people!) have hereditary defects. Some of the less popular breeds or those recently recognized by AKC may not have been studied as thoroughly as the older or more populous breeds, but the breeder should be able to tell you about concerns that have arisen. Ask to see the parents’ health screening reports. A slight defect that does not affect the dog’s lifespan or quality of life should not be a reason to rule out a puppy.
Does this breeder participate in dog shows or performance events?
For various reasons, not all good breeders are able to compete, but she should know the ‘dog world’ and be respected by her peers. In fact, some breeders who are extremely involved in showing or competing in performance events may have less time for pet owners. Ask when she will be available should you need to call. Numerous ribbons and championship certificates may be impressive but they have little to do with whether this breeder produces puppies with good pet temperaments or personalities. Obviously, if you are looking for a show or performance dog, your criteria will be somewhat different.
You should be given all these things. As a general rule, registration should be with the American Kennel Club, not another registry. The pedigree is your dog’s family tree and (if correct) proves that your dog is a purebred. The AKC invests much money and effort into insuring that their pedigrees are accurate.
Will the puppy be at least seven weeks old when I take him home?
Puppies are not ready to leave their mothers before 7 weeks (Virginia law specifies 7 weeks) at the very earliest, and most breeders hold them till 8 or 10 weeks. The pups’ mother teaches them manners and how to get along in general after they are weaned, and their littermates teach them “dog language.” A puppy separated from the litter too soon may develop temperament issues as he ages.
Will the breeder take the puppy back at any age if it doesn’t work out for any reason?
You may never intend to give up your dog, but life has a way of throwing curveballs sometimes! Divorce, serious financial trouble, a death in the family, illness…all of these are reasons some people find they are no longer able to care for their dogs. Your breeder should be ready to take your dog back or actively help you rehome him.
Choosing Your Puppy
Many breeders will choose your puppy for you or at least have a strong suggestion. The breeder has lived with these puppies for weeks and may happen to know that the quiet, reserved puppy in the corner is really the litter hellion…he’s just tired! If you’ve told the breeder what you want and described your lifestyle, you’ll be assured of the best match. Sometimes you’ll have a choice of several puppies, and in that case, here is your assignment!
Is the mother of the puppies friendly and socialized?
Much of the puppy’s personality is due to the mother’s influence. It is even said that 75 percent of a puppy’s temperament comes from the mother. That is because they are with her constantly for the first weeks of their lives. If she is nervous, they are liable to be nervous as well. A happy mom has happy pups.
Were the puppies born and reared in the home or a kennel? How much attention did they get?
Most people feel that puppies should be raised in the house and “underfoot.” This does usually ensure that they will be exposed to the kinds of noises and situations they will encounter in their new homes. However, some people with separate kennels truly spend more time out there with the dogs than in the house. In that case, the kennel is better!
Do the puppies appear healthy and energetic? (Sleepy is okay; lethargic is not!) Are their coats clean and glossy? Are their eyes clear? Are they sneezing or coughing? Are the stools firm?
A healthy puppy is a must. Never buy a sick puppy because you feel sorry for it. Express your concerns to the breeder and walk away. If you are seriously concerned, call animal control and ask them to check the situation.
Do the puppies accept handling willingly? What types of socialization have they received?
Puppies must be handled regularly and exposed to new situations very young. Have they been for car rides? How many visitors have they had? How much time have they spent outdoors? There is a limit to how much exposure a young puppy should have before vaccinations are complete, but an effort should be made to acclimate them to various places and people.
When you have narrowed it down to two or three puppies, try these little tests:
- Does the puppy come to you when you kneel down and coax her?
- Will she follow you if you walk a few steps away?
- How does she react to being picked up and held?
- Does she follow a rolling ball?
- Is her tail wagging?
You can get a pretty good idea of the puppy’s levels of confidence and trust this way. Kneel down or sit on the floor so you’re at her level. Sometimes a puppy will seem to pick you. But as one breeder said, “The friendliest puppy in the litter will ‘pick’ everyone who walks through the door.” So be sure the puppy that chooses you is the one you would have chosen. Most people suggest choosing the middle of the road puppy, not the most energetic and not the quietest.
Which puppy does the breeder recommend for me?
As mentioned above, the breeder knows her puppies best. By now she should know something about your lifestyle and what role you want a dog to play in your world. She can usually tell you which puppy is the brightest, which is the sweetest, and which is the first to get into mischief. You will seldom go wrong following her advice!
Congratulations! You have just chosen your new best friend!