Unfortunately for dogs (and for people!), one of the most common reasons for dogs being relinquished to shelters or rescues is not because there is anything wrong with the dog (or with the people), but simply because there is a mismatch between dog and human. A busy household that brings home a high energy breed and then doesn’t have the time to exercise it, resulting in a dog who destroys the house while everyone is away for the day is a good example. Or an elderly man whose well-intentioned child buys him a boisterous large breed puppy as a companion only to have the pup turn into a boisterous LARGE puppy, resulting in a dangerous situation for all. Or someone who depends on dog-park play as a way to exercise her dog bringing home a pit bull only to find out she doesn’t play well with other dogs.
All of these situations can end up extremely frustrating and potentially heart-breaking for the owners, and for dogs who get turned over to shelters, possibly life-threatening. And many of them can be avoided by being realistic about the type of dog who will fit into your lifestyle, as well as the traits that certain breeds are prone to.
So how do you avoid them?
1. Start with a list: What traits do you want in a dog? Do you want a couch-potato or do you want a marathon runner? Do you want a dog who is friendly with strangers or who is a one-person dog? Here’s the most important part: BE REALISTIC. Look at what your lifestyle really is. Even if the Border Collie you grew up with on the farm as a kid was the perfect dog, it doesn’t mean one will fit well into your 40-hour-work-week, small-apartment-with-no-yard adult lifestyle.
Do you legitimately have time to exercise that Labrador Retriever? Do you really want a protective dog when you have young children and their friends running through the house? When you say you want a smart dog, do you want a dog whose mind has to be occupied all the time or he’ll get into trouble occupying himself, or do you actually want a dog who is laid back and easy to train? Do you need a dog who plays well with other dogs?
2. Then make another list: What can you not live with? Again, be unflinchingly honest. Is an alarm bark when the mail drops through the slot ok but a dog who likes to announce every bird who flies past the house more than you can tolerate? How much fur are you willing to vacuum off the couch in an average week? Is it going to aggravate you having to scrub slobber off the walls? Can you afford to pay for a groomer every 6-8 weeks? Do you need a dog who is going to be good with kids and is it a deal-breaker if he is not?
3. Try a breed selector. There are a number of them available online, and some are better than others. Animal Planet has a nice one. So does Iams and Dogtime. The results you get are not written in stone, and you may get different results from one quiz to the next, but they can at least give you a jumping-off place and some different breeds to further explore to see if they are a good match for your lifestyle.
It is also important to keep in mind that while breed traits were developed with predictability in mind, all dogs are individuals. If you fell in love with your friend’s German Shepherd who has never met a stranger and loves everyone, keep in mind, that is not typical of the breed and that the pup you pick out may be suspicious and standoffish with strangers. It is really important to do your homework, especially if you are going to be getting a puppy.
There are some great websites out there that give you the basics on each breed. I really like the one on Vetstreet. But nothing is going to be a better educator than spending some time around dogs of that breed. This can be tricky if you’ve fallen for an unusual or rare breed (like the Cirneco D’Elletna that I’ve recently been eyeballing), so seeking them out at dog shows and talking to people in the breed might be extremely important. What looks good on paper may not translate into a good match in the house.
It might also be important to let go of preconceived notions. Not all Labs make great family dogs. In fact, many of them don’t. Dalmatians look great on the movie screen, but they were bred to run next to a carriage all day long and thus are extremely high energy. Bedlington Terriers might look like cute little lambs, but they can be very serious vermin-hunting terriers. Not all pit bulls are dog-aggressive but it needs to always be in your awareness (and it’s not all in how you raise them.
To this end, it might be worth considering looking for an adult dog, whether a retired (or failed) show dog from a breeder or a pure or mixed-breed dog from a (breed-specific or all-breed) rescue or shelter. Adult dogs tend to be fairly “what you see is what you get”, and especially if you have a complicated, busy family (multiple dogs, kids, cats, whatever), finding the specific “right” dog for you- regardless of breed- is really what is going to make things work best in the end.