How NOT to Pick A Dog Breed… and What You REALLY Need To Know

Picking your next family member is an important decision. We find that most families put serious thought into the type of dog they get.

But even in cases where the family thought carefully before picking their dog, we trainers find ourselves often wishing that our clients had picked a different breed.

Why?

Well, here are some biggest factors that people consider when picking their next dog… and why they shouldn’t.

Size:

“I don’t have time to exercise a big dog” or “I want a dog that can go on hikes with me” are common responses when we ask why a client chose the breed they did.

Unfortunately, people assume that big dogs need more exercise, when size has very little to do with exercise requirements. A Newfoundland needs far less exercise than a Jack Russell Terrier, for example.

Size also doesn’t affect how much space the dog needs. A giant hearthrug is sometimes more suitable to a small apartment than a small ball of unbridled energy. A greyhound needs a couch. A terrier needs a farm.

What size does affect is the cost to care for the dog – big dogs eat a lot, and when they get sick they need much bigger doses of medication.

So by all means consider size, but only for very concrete reasons such as strata bylaws, upkeep cost, and physical work required (a yorkshire terrier should not be considered as a wheelchair pulling dog, for example).

Fur coat/shedding:

Many dogs are picked because they shed less. Totally valid. Shedding fur is a pain in the butt. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that short haired dogs shed less than long haired dogs.

Anyone who has owned a lab or a pug will tell you that they shed TONS of fur, far more than a golden retriever does.

Sometimes people think dogs who don’t shed are hypoallergenic. This is not, in fact, the case.

My own husband, for example, is very allergic to Poodles. They make him sneeze like crazy. We bought a Bernese Mountain Dog partially because those big, hairy, shedding Alpine draft dogs do not aggravate his allergies.

One client of ours bought a pug because they are the only breed that doesn’t make her break out in hives, even though they shed nasty amounts of hair.

Studies have showed that nonshedding dogs drop just as much dander (skin cells) as shedding dogs, and it is in fact often the dog’s saliva which people are allergic to.

That being said, different types of dogs seem to have different types of dander, so many people are allergic to labs but not to wheaten terriers, for example. But rather than assuming that nonshedding = hypoallergenic, test your allergies on the breed of dog you are considering first.

Finally, remember that if you are buying a mixed breed, such as a golden doodle, that a wide variety of hair coats come out of mixing two breeds together. Some have poodle hair. Some have silky hair and shed less but still some. Some have terrier-type hair and shed all over the place.

Mix breed dogs are often healthy due to hybrid vigour (non-inbreeding) but their temperments and hair coat are less predictable so take that into consideration.

Intelligence:

“I heard they were really smart” is a popular reason for getting a particular breed. But do you really want a smart dog?

Smart dogs take a lot of work.

It is harder to train a highly intelligent dog. They question your every decision. They look for loopholes in every rule. They test boundaries just for the fun of it.

If you want a dog who will figure out how to unlatch their crate and get into the garbage while you are out of the house, then get a smart dog.

If you want a dog who will happily snooze the day away and obey you happily and willingly for the love of all things holy do NOT get a highly intelligent breed.

But is that really what you want?

While dog trainers appreciate the lightning speed and the obsessive workaholism of a Border Collie or Belgian Malinois, your average family does not want or need that kind of intelligence.

Dog trainers constantly joke about it, making memes like this:

Most people don’t actually want smart dogs. They pick a dog breed for intelligence and then hire us to fix that intelligence.

They really want willing dogs.

Intelligence usually only refers to how quickly someone learns, or how easily they can solve a problem.

Slow and steady often wins that race.

My Bernese Mountain Dog doesn’t pick up on stuff with the laser-beam focus that my sheltie Odin did. But she’s willing and she gets there and she is a much, MUCH easier dog to live with than Odin was when he was her age.

Odin was smart but he was a holy terror of a puppy.


Trainer Amelia’s Boxer, Doug, was dumb as rocks.

He was also the sweetest, happiest, friendliest, most loving dog you could ever hope to meet.

Doug was a great dog.

Doug was a Trick Dog Champion who would fetch you a Kleenex when you sneezed, and then go put it in the garbage for you. He could dunk a basketball into a basketball net, roll himself up in a blanket, and throw away his own poop bags.

You don’t need a smart dog to get a good dog.

Temperament

Roscoe watches over Baby Jane in Hope, BC

“I heard they are really loyal and loving” is what people often say about their breed of choice.

Guess what? All dog breeds are loyal and loving. They are dogs. We have selectively bred them to be our helpers and companions for millions of generations.

The selfish, unloving, vicious jerks didn’t make the cut.

Every single breed in the Kennel Club database will be described as affectionate/friendly/loving/gentle/loyal.

Every single one.

Any dog with a solid stable temperament will love you and work to please you. Dogs are just like that.

Temperament is the least predictable aspect of a dog breed. Within any breed you can get fearful dogs, outgoing dogs, anxious dogs, and bomb-proof dogs.

Temperament testing is largely useless, too.

Service dog schools have poured a lot of money into trying to predict a puppy’s adult temperaments, but it has been found again and again to be pretty futile. We change so much as we grow and learn that you simply can’t predict the future from a brief snapshot of a puppy’s behaviour.

Someone who lives with the puppy can tell you if they are brave or shy, clingy or independent, but that’s about it.

The physical characteristics of a breed are much more predictable than the personality of the dog in question. They’re all unique individuals, after all.

So What’s The Best Way To Pick A Dog?

While all of the above considerations are things to think about, there is one very important step that many families skip.

Know What Your Dog Was Bred To Do

Dog breeds were bred for a purpose.

While nowadays breed choices hinge largely on things like size or coat type, it used to be that dogs worked for a living, and the dogs who did the best at their jobs were bred and used to parent future generations.

The standard “look” of the breed you love was usually fostered after the fact by fans of the breed who began selecting for appearance. But originally the dogs were bred because they loved to do the job and they were good at it.

That means that your Labrador Retriever comes from generations upon generations of dogs that loved to carry things in their mouths.

Your Border Collie comes from generations of dogs who love to run after sheep and make them go where they are supposed to go.

Your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel comes from ancestors who made particularly excellent companions.

Know what your dog was bred to do, because there is an excellent chance that your dog is going to want to do that thing.

Do not get a terrier if you want a dog that will lie still and sleep all day. Terriers are bred to hunt for mice and rats, and will spend much of the day patrolling. They won’t want to eat out of a bowl – they’ll want to earn their meals.

Do not get a Newfoundland if you want a hiking companion. They were bred to sit on a boat all day and occasionally help haul a fishnet onto deck. Short bursts of energy are the best you can expect.

Do not get a Beagle if you want a dog who hangs on your every word. Hounds are bred to go out and sniff out prey all on their own. They think for themselves and don’t appreciate being given orders. That nose will be on the ground and they will track that rabbit no matter how many times you call.

Do not get a Cavalier King Charles if you want a hearing-ear dog to alert you to fire alarms and ringing phones. That dog is not going to get out of a warm and comfy bed to let you know that your boss is calling you.

Are there retrievers out there who don’t pick up everything in their mouths? Yes.

Are there terriers who sleep all day, rather than barking at passers-by from the picture window? Yes.

Are there hyper-intelligent pugs who need to be kept mentally stimulated to prevent them from thoroughly outwitting their owners?

It’s… hypothetically possible, okay?

My point is that yes, weirdos exist in every breed, and temperaments within breeds can vary widely. However, it is a very safe bet to assume that your dog will really enjoy doing what it has been bred to do.

You can start by looking at its AKC Group.

The American Kennel Club groups dog breeds by purpose.

Sporting Group:

We owned one Labrador (Dawn of Kezar) who, after being broken as a retriever, was taught in a few weeks to take hand signals and quarter her ground back and forth ahead of the gun. No one watching her valuable work would pretend that she crashed the weed thickets with the speed and dash of a Springer. . . . But this Lab loved to quest for game. To the ‘hunt ’em up’ command and a wave of the hand she would bang into the brush and tall weeds to find pheasants for us, always staying within easy gun range. Most upland bird hunting is, of course, done with the pointing and sporting spaniel breeds, and in these dogs ability to retrieve is especially important from the standpoint of reducing crippling losses of upland game.” – Bird Dogs in Sport and Conservation 1948

These are dogs bred for finding or fetching game. Spaniels, Retrievers, Pointers and Setters all fall into this category.

Because these breeds were meant to follow the hunter’s instructions and then return, they tend to be obedient and eager to please. Because they had to be brave enough to put up with loud gun shots, they tend to socialize easily. And because they did not need to guard anything, they tend to be friendly and easy-going.

There is a reason that service dog schools use retrievers – they are emotionally tough, can handle a kennel environment, and they can handle accompanying to the new summer blockbuster action flick. They also love to work.

They also all love to chase birds and need a moderate to high amount of exercise.

As long as you can meet those exercise requirements and give your sporting dog some jobs, they make great family friends.

Hound Group:

A group of villagers were watching the sport, and close to the line a woman was standing ; but Rufus paid no heed to either, and went on hunting every inch of the line until reaching the outside boundary, clearly defined by one of Gibbs white flags. Here he came to his first serious check, being out of view for some minutes in a wood. On coming into sight he ran heel for a distance ; but, encouraged by Collett, he at length regained the line, and rattling down into the valley, where scent was warmer than on the higher ground, he ran into his quarry in exactly one hour and ten minutes—really an excellent performance. – The New Book of the Dog, 1911

Hounds are bred to sniff out, track down, and sometimes kill game.

This group, which includes Beagles, Fox Hounds, and Basenjis, tend to be independent thinkers and problem solvers who don’t spend much time taking orders from their handler.

The best hounds were the ones who never gave up and didn’t come running back to the boss for help the moment the trail went cold.

Anyone who has ever read Where the Red Fern Grows knows how stubborness – doggedness, you could call it – was valued in hound-type dogs.

Expect it.

If you want an independent family dog who isn’t too clingy, consider a dog from the hound group. Many of them have high energy requirements, but beagles are medium energy while Bassets are practically ottomans.

Working Group:

THEY OFTEN DRAG CONSIDERABLE LOADS.’ so far from resenting their duties they positively enjoy their work. It is said, indeed, that there is only one day in the week on which a Belgian draught dog is unhappy, and that is Sunday, when he remains at home inactive. – The New Book of the Dog, 1911

The working group is the group with the most dog breeds that should have big red flags on them saying “Not For Beginners”.

Ranging widely from herding dogs to guard dogs, any breed in the Working Group was bred for a very specific task and you should keep that task in mind before you buy.

Most dogs from the working group want to do their job and if you don’t give them a job then may Dog have mercy on your soul.

That being said, there are some truly wonderful companions in this group and most dog trainers choose Working Group dogs. I have never owned a dog that didn’t fall into this category.

Because of the variety of tasks a working dog could perform, this is the group where it is most important that you read the fine print on the history of the breed.

The Doberman is a wonderful example.

Dobermann was a tax man who wanted a dog to accompany him on his rounds and protect him (tax collectors are strangely unpopular). He combined the guarding tendencies of a Rottweiler with the rabid workaholism of herding breed dogs and ended up with a dog very similar to what we now call the Doberman Pinscher.

The result is a dog with the fierce intelligence of a herding breed dog with the possessiveness of a guard dog. Which, depending on what you want in a dog, is either awesome or a big fat YIKES.


That being said, don’t rule out a breed just because it belongs to this group. Many of the drafting breeds make calm, loving, and hard working family members. Just know what the dog is bred to do, and think about how that might affect your dog’s personality.

Terrier Group:

He may be very usefully employed by those who follow rabbit shooting in cover, for his perseverance is indomitable ; and, when of the rough or wiry-haired species, thorns and bram-bles have no account with him. The family of the terrier is the most domestic of all the canine race, and one that has lately made, and is still making, great progress in the higher branches of science known to its genus. The species called bull-terrier is capable of training to almost any purpose for which the dog is required. – The New Book of the Dog, 1911

Terriers are mostly vermin-hunters – bred to keep rats out of barns, kill foxes, or dig badgers out of their sets. Some did it competitively, with people betting how many rats a dog could kill.

Because of this, terrier tend to be feisty, independent, and quick-witted. They learn fast, think for themselves, and love a good challenge.

Some terriers were bred for dog fighting – mixed with bulldogs and thrown into the arena for bloodsport. If your dog comes from one of these lines, be aware that extensive dog socialization is a must.

Terriers have a ton of personality and are a lot of fun. They love to do pretty much every task there is… except stay home and sleep.

Toy Group:

“We find that these little dogges are good to assuage the sickness of the stomacke, being therunto oftentimes applyed as a plaster preservative or borne in the bosom of the weake or diseased person, which effect is performed by theyr moderate heate. – Dr Caius, quoted in The American Book of the Dog 1891

Toy breeds often are miniaturized versions of breeds from other categories. It delighted wealthy ladies to have a pet which looked like a doll-like version of popular working dogs. Thus the Cavalier is a miniature spaniel, the Pug a miniature mastiff, and the pomeranian a miniature spitz.

Toys were used as the playthings of the rich and indolent and as living hot water bottles for the sick and the poor.

Because they were bred specifically for size or unusual appearance (such as hairlessness) they are more prone to health problems than sporting and working breeds. However, with proper care most Toy breeds have very long life expectancies, often 16-17 years of age.

Most Toy breeds maintain the personality of the breeds that they originally came from, but tend to have more clingy natures and don’t do well alone. Many of them tend to be one-man dogs and can be standoffish with strangers.

Most don’t stand up to rough handling and many are not good with children – Pugs and Cavaliers being notable exceptions. Pugs can be positively rough-and-tumble and make excellent family dogs.

Toys are not for everyone, and they are certainly not the animated stuffed animals they are sometimes mistaken for. Please research carefully about the breed’s health and temperament before you get one.

Non-Sporting Group:

This is the biggest catch-all of the breed groups. The breeds in this group are usually here because they were (at least in recent history) bred for looks more than for one particular job.

This is where you find many of the most distinctive breeds such as Dalmations, Poodles, and Bulldogs.

If you’re considering a dog in the Non-Sporting category, read the history carefully. Some, like the poodle, are so wonderfully versatile that they make excellent dogs for all types of owners. Others, like the Chow Chow, are only suitable for very specific types of homes.

Many Non-Sporting breeds come with severe health problems – a side effect of being bred primarily for appearance. Bulldogs have chronic skin problems and sometimes need surgery to be able to breathe comfortably. Dalmations are prone to bladder stones. Poodles – especially the smaller poodles – are notorious for their terrible teeth.

The Takeaway:

No matter how cute you think a particular breed or breed mix is, or no matter how much you have heard about the dog’s personality, it is important to know what a dog was bred to do.

If your dog is a mix, consider that your dog could want to do either or all jobs bred into their ancestors.

Because while every dog is their own unique person, if a dog comes from a long line of dogs who liked to do a particular job, you need to ask yourself if you want a dog who loves to do that particular thing.

That doesn’t mean your dog can’t do other jobs.

All dogs, for example, have a tendency to guard the family home, particularly when left up to their own devices. This was the first job dogs ever did for humans and so it is in the genetic makeup of every dog, though some breeds are more territorial than others.

Toys, in particular, often take up guarding because they are frequently treated more like cats than like dogs and lack enrichment and other “jobs” so they default to the original dog job – barking at everything.

Ultimately, all dogs are reasonably intelligent, as domestic animals go, and are capable of learning new things.

So Bernese Mountain Dogs, who are lumbering farm and draft dogs, can learn to do agility. Dachshunds, bred to dig our burrowing animals, can learn to play flyball. Pugs can become Trick Dog Champions.

In fact, experienced trainers often delight in training a dog to go beyond its breed and wow other trainers.

But when you are considering a family member, it’s important to understand that every dog has a purpose, it is up to you to help them fulfill it…

…Not train them out of it.

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