Choosing Your New Dog

Jason Cook

apl-sm copyChoosing a dog who will be part of your life for many years is a major decision.  It is important to choose a dog who is well matched to your family and lifestyle, so that you will avoid running into behavior problems down the road.

You may get your new dog from a shelter, a pet store, a rescue group, an internet or newspaper ad, or a breeder.  You have many decisions to make about the breed, age, and gender of your dog.  She will have certain behavioral traits based on her genetic makeup, prenatal environment, and life experiences.

The first step in getting a new dog is to think very hard about the daily realities involved in having a dog in your life and household.  Dogs require companionship, mental stimulation, training, and physical exercise, as well as food, water, and shelter.  Though you may find a certain breed’s physical appearance appealing, you must also be careful to consider the dog’s personality, temperament, and behavior patterns.

Choosing a Breed

You might have fond memories of a dog from your childhood, but that breed of dog may simply not be suited to your current situation.  Often, our memories of childhood pets are colored by the fact that we did not have to deal with the training and care of the dog.  You must have realistic expectations for how a dog is going to fit into your life.  How active are you and your family?  How much time do you have to spend on daily walks, basic training, and grooming?  Are you interested in organized dog sports such as agility?  Do you have small children who might be uncomfortable with a large dog, or who might not be old enough to handle a toy breed with care?

Dogs have been selectively bred over time to perform certain tasks.  The basic temperament required for performing these tasks is directly related to the breed’s behaviors in a home environment.  Herding breeds may nip at the heels of children or other dogs.  Terriers, who have been bred to be alert, may bark more at people passing by your house.  These breed characteristics make it essential that you research the breeds that may be right for you.

Breed groups share traits that will be helpful in making your decision about getting a dog.  Traditional breed groupings, such as those designated by the American Kennel Club, take into account the historical function of the breeds.  Sporting dogs were bred to hunt game birds on land and in the water.  Hound dogs were bred for hunting other game by sight or scent.  Working dogs were bred to pull carts, guard property, and perform search-and-rescue services.  Terriers were bred to rid property of vermin.  Toy dogs were bred to be household companions.  Non-sporting dogs vary in size and function, and many are considered companion dogs.  Herding dogs were bred to help shepherds and ranchers herd their livestock.  These breed characteristics affect how your new dog will behave at home.  Some breeds display variations in their behavior or physical appearance.  Therefore, the behavior of two dogs of the same breed may be very different.

Where Will You Get Your Dog?

You can get your dog from a variety of sources.  Animal shelters and breed rescues save the lives of previously unwanted animals who were either surrendered by their owners, picked up as strays, or rescued by humane officers from abuse and neglect.  There are often behavioral reasons why these dogs are being rehomed.  So, the more information you have about the past of shelter or rescue dogs, the better equipped you will be to handle their behavior in your home.

Many shelters perform temperament testing on all dogs before they are placed up for adoption.  Temperament tests are designed to assess social behavior with people and dogs, trainability, handling ability, and propensity for aggression based on food or resource guarding.

Your children and other dogs should meet the dog before you decide to complete the adoption.  If you have young children, you should look for a dog who greets them appropriately and seeks their attention.  A dog who does not show interest in your children, or who actively avoids them is not a good match for your family.

There is often a post-adoption “honeymoon period,” during which the adopted dog will behave differently than she will as she becomes more comfortable in her new home.  As the dog starts bonding with the family and becoming familiar with her territory, you must pay attention to her behavior so that aggression problems don’t develop.

Puppies sold at pet stores may not be behaviorally sound.  These puppies often come from large breeding facilities, also known as puppy mills.  The condition of the puppy’s parents in the breeding facility can be atrocious, with the breeding mother being subject to mental and physical distress.  The stress experienced by the mother is shared with the developing puppies during pregnancy because the mother’s stress hormones affect the babies via the fetal blood supply.  Prenatal exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can cause puppies to develop abnormal brain chemistry, leading to behavior problems.

If you get your puppy from a highly invested breeder, you will have the opportunity to meet your puppy’s parents and see the conditions in which they live.  You can expect your puppy to grow up with the physical and temperamental traits of her breed.  The parents of your puppy will also have been tested for serious health conditions that might be passed on to offspring.  When choosing your puppy from a litter, find a puppy who is neither withdrawn nor overly rambunctious or assertive.  Puppies should remain with their mothers and their littermates until they are eight to ten weeks old.

Puppy or Adult Dog?

Adopting a puppy requires a great deal of time and commitment.  Puppies go through chewing and teething phases and must be housetrained.  By adopting an adult dog, you may get a dog who is already housetrained and has learned what she is allowed to chew.  However, an adult dog will have learned things as she was growing up that might be undesirable, and you will be inheriting these problems.  You will have somewhat less influence on your adult dog’s behavior because the main socialization period has already passed.

Give Your Dog a Forever Home

The most important thing to remember when adopting a dog is that you are giving your pet a forever home.  You must make a commitment to the dog for life.  Therefore, take the time and make the effort to carefully consider which dog will be the best fit for your family and lifestyle.  Research which breeds or mixed breeds will be the best match for you, based on the environment and activity you can provide.  Think about where you will get your new dog, and consider adopting from a shelter or reputable breeder.  Select a dog who seems well-balanced.  Be prepared to help your dog adjust to her new forever home, and expect a lot of love in return.