Starting off on the Right Paw – Part 1: Choosing the Right Breed

Purebred puppy - weim

There is so much that’s exciting about bringing home a new dog.  For me, the best part is anticipating the new bond and complex relationship that will form between the new dog and the rest of the family.  However, for some families, this match making can go terribly wrong.  Many of the problems my clients experience with their dogs are due to a poor match and/or poor breeding.  So many problems can be avoided by choosing the right dog in the first place.  You know the saying…”an ounce of prevention…”

To address this, I will be writing a series of blog posts aimed at helping you select the right dog. Today’s post will focus on breed selection. This post focuses on choosing a purebred dog, but much of this information (particularly the first section) will be helpful if you’re looking for a mixed breed as well. Future posts in the series will include How to Choose a Breeder, How to Choose a Puppy (i.e. picking out a specific individual) and Adopting a Dog. There may be more too; originally I was just going to do one post on this topic, but I quickly realized it would need far more than that if I wanted to cover it properly!



Evaluate your lifestyle and your needs/wants

Carefully consider what kind of lifestyle you lead, what limitations you have and what you’d like to do with your dog. This will help you pick a dog that’s a good match for your particular family.

Here is a partial list of questions to ask yourself at the very beginning of the process:

  1. Do you have children? How old are they?
  • Small dogs are often not a good choice for young children – they are fragile and don’t hold up well to the loud noises and rough handling that comes along with toddlers
  • Herding dogs (such as border collies and shelties) often love to “herd” running children and may nip at their heels. This is something that can often be addressed through training, but it’s good to know this ahead of time so you can prevent these issues instead of trying to fix them after they’ve already developed
  • Some breeds are better with kids than others. Do your research carefully (more on that later)
  1. What is the typical activity level in your house? Is there a lot of chaos with different schedules every day and people coming in and out a lot? Or is it a calmer, more predictable setting?
  • Again, certain breeds will adapt better to a lot of energy and activity than others – do your research!
  • If you have a lot of people coming in and out of your home, you’ll want to choose a dog that is outgoing, friendly and confident around strangers. You’ll also want to focus a lot of time on socialization (more on that in a later post).
  1. How active is your family? Do you engage in outdoor activities – like hiking and camping – that your dog can participate in? Or are you more likely to spend the evening relaxing at home or the day downhill skiing?
  • This is a very important consideration and can really impact how well the dog fits into your home
  • Most dogs I see do not get enough exercise. Some dogs adjust to this better than others. Sporting (e.g. labs) and herding (e.g. border collies) breeds and some working, hound and terrier breeds may need hours a day of exercise to truly be able to relax inside. This is not an exaggeration! Yes, labs are great with kids, but if you are in a busy family and have a lot of obligations already, getting a lab puppy may not be the best choice.
  1. How much time and energy do you want to invest in training your dog?
  • Again, certain breeds need much more training than others and not giving them this time and attention can result in dog that’s a terror to live with.
  1. How do you feel about grooming? Are you willing to take the time to learn how to groom your own dog or pay for regular trips to the groomer?
  2. What size dog do you want? Do you want a dog you can easily travel with? A dog that you can go on long hikes with? Are you concerned about being able to physically handle a large dog?

Lab with stick

Do your research

Now that you have a list of the traits you’re looking for in a new dog, it’s time to start researching breeds. There are two stages of research: 1) coming up with a list of possible breeds and 2) narrowing that list down by doing more in depth research on the front runners. There are many different sources of information:

To come up with a list of possible breeds

  1. Breed books
  • These can be a good source of information about dog breeds. However, a lot of breed books are not as helpful as they could be for two reasons. Many breed books cover only one breed and tend to be biased in favor of that breed, so they don’t talk a lot about the possible downsides of the breed (no dog is perfect for everyone). Many other breed books cover all or most officially recognized breeds, but don’t cover them in much depth and can be misleading for that reason.
  • One of my favorites is “Paw to Consider” by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson. It’s a bit old now, so I would back it up with information from other sources, but it’s a great starting point.
  • Make sure you also make note of common health problems in particular breeds
  1. Dog breed selection websites
  • These websites ask you a series of questions about your lifestyle and preferences and then give you breed recommendations. They usually give you some information about the dogs as well
  • I tried several of these websites and didn’t particularly like any of them. I would not use these sites to make a final decision on breed.  Having said that…if you really have no idea what you’re looking for, this could be a good starting point. Take a few different quizzes, make note of the breeds they produce and then use the resources below to research those breeds in depth.


To narrow down your list to one, two or three front runners

  1. Breed rescue websites
  • Breed rescues, well…rescue specific breeds. They take in dogs that didn’t work out in their previous homes and try to find them “forever” homes. For this reason, they care a lot about making sure their breed goes to a home that is the best possible match. Therefore, they often have information on their website on the good AND bad points of a particular breed. As an example, take a look at the breed info page for New England Border Collie Rescue (http://www.nebcr.org/Border_Collie.html).
  • As an added bonus, if you do decide on a particular breed, you’ll have the contact information for a rescue group for that breed. You may want to adopt a dog from them or ask them if they can refer you to any breeders (often, at least some of the breed rescue group volunteers are also breeders).
  • Again, remember to make note of common health problems in particular breeds. You can also find out if there are any screening tests available and what kind of documentation you can expect from the breeder to confirm that these tests were done.
  1. Current owners of the breed
  • Do you know someone that lives with the breed you’re looking for? Have you seen one walking down the street? Talk to the families about what it’s like to live with that particular breed and what they do and don’t like about that breed.
  1. Breeders
  • Finally we get to breeders. You can start by checking out their websites and eventually call or e-mail them for more information. However, you’ll want to make sure you know how to choose a good breeder before you get to this step. This is extremely important. One sign that you’ve found a good breeder is that their website, like the breed rescue sites, will include information on the good and bad points of the breed.
  • The next blog post in the series will cover how to find a good breeder in detail.
Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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