Picking a dog

At last count, you could find 12,772,630 posts on the interwebs on how to pick a new dog.  There are posts and tools to help you choose a breed, a breeder, a rescue or shelter, and a new puppy.  Some of the information is good; some of it is idiotic.  Most of it is too long and involved, and allows people to get hung up on relatively unimportant details, missing the forest for the trees. I think about this topic a lot.  First, I’ve picked dogs of my own.  A couple just sort of landed on me, while the others I chose carefully. And I did a pretty darn good job with the last dog I chose deliberately.  I found a good breeder who worked well with me, and she helped me choose a great dog who suits me.  (This is Mellie, for those who follow along closely.) But more important, I offer my clients the service of helping to find a breeder, a litter, a breed, a puppy or adult dog, from various sources.  I’ve evaluated dogs in shelters; I’ve evaluated entire litters; I’ve interviewed breeders.  Breeds have varied.  Many of the clients seeking help are those who have recently experienced a traumatic loss of a behaviorally troubled dog and who don’t trust their own judgment any more, so I’m under great pressure to identify the best chances at a great temperament.  The stakes are high.  I’ve come up with some shortcuts that can really help with the search. Here they are:

  1. Carefully research and take seriously all the bad, unpleasant information you can find on a breed you are considering.  
  2. If you are getting a dog from a breeder, only buy from a breeder who promises in a written contract to take the dog back at any time in its life, for any reason.  
  3. If you are getting a dog from a shelter, rescue or private owner other than a breeder, hire a good behavior consultant to help you assess before you commit.  
  4. If you can meet the dog’s parents, choose a dog whose parents are warm, relaxed and friendly with strangers, including you, and including the dam while her litter is present.  

Of course there is no such thing as a short answer that is also complete.  (There’s no such thing as a long answer that is also complete, really.)  There are other questions one should ask; these may depend on the breed, your plans for your dogs, whether the dog is in rescue or with a breeder, the dog’s age, and so on.  But these steps will hugely reduce the number of bad matches, and they should happen very early in the process.  Here’s discussion:

Focus on the bad about the breed.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  But the time to do this is before you actually choose a breed.  If you are trying to identify a breed, identify breeds that you are considering or attract you.  Then go read everything bad you can find online about that breed.  Specifically look at rescue sites.  Search google for “[breed name] problems.”  Talk to people who own dogs of that breed and ask them to tell you the two, three or four worst things about that breed.  Now, ask yourself if you could live with a dog who exhibited these problems.  There is one special caveat about this, which is at the end of this section.

I will admit that this is a little like reading all the warnings on any medication insert. It can be daunting. They pretty much all have the risk of death, coma, and seizures, if something goes wrong enough.  Likewise, any dog of any breed can become aggressive to dogs or people, develop severe separation anxiety, etc.  So we are looking for common themes; behavior problems that can be hard to avoid, or are at least not uncommon, especially with an inexperienced owner or in certain lines.

The worst fairly common problems with Border Collies are things like intense chasing of cars, bikes, kids, etc.; fearfulness and noise-phobias; dog is easily bored and may do awful things when bored, so lots of training time and mental stimulation is a must.  If you have a kid and live in a noisy neighborhood full of skateboarders, you’d want to be a very dedicated and experienced herding breed owner to take on these challenges.  Now, what about American Staffordshire Terriers? These dogs tend to be people friendly, bouncy and active when young, relatively easy to train and less likely to outsmart you, but there is a higher risk of severe aggression toward other dogs.  If you have other dogs in the house, or plan to do any kind of dog activity in close proximity with other dogs, or are frail and easily injured if you fall down, this may not be the right breed for you.

These are just examples.  You will see trends about the type and severity of problems that can occur, which differ from breed to breed.  This is important information. The main point is:  If you see the same information repeatedly on lists of problems with a breed, take it seriously!  Do not allow yourself to be convinced that it is all in how you raise them (it is not, and I would be thrilled never to hear these words again).  It is very easy to fall prey to confirmation bias when you are researching breeds.  You have a positive impression of the breed and will start to automatically tune out information that contradicts what you feel.  Resist this.  Pretend you’re a lawyer taking apart a witness on cross examination.  Think critically!

Here is the caveat:  Pit bulls.  It is nauseatingly easy to find information online insisting that pit bulls are killing machines who will eat your children for breakfast.  The truth is far more complicated.  There are millions of dogs referred to as “pit bulls” in this country.  Some are American Pit Bull Terriers (bred and registered).  Some are American Staffordshire Terriers (same).  Some are what I might call “street pits,” which have the look of, and similar ancestry to, APBTs or AmStaffs, but are not registered, do not have pedigrees, might be mixed with all sorts of other breeds, etc.  This makes for less predictability in looks and behavior; and a number of other “bully breeds” that are related to “real pit bulls” in various ways and in varying degrees.  These include American Bullies, American Bulldogs, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.  These breeds and types do vary, from each other and within the type or breed.  None of them is bred for human directed aggression, but some of them are very poorly bred.  The motor pattern common to all these breeds is a very powerful grab/hold and/or grab/shake behavior which can be extremely damaging.  Thus, if your bully-type breed dog were to go after a person, either because of lousy training and treatment or because of genetic factors (or both, most likely), he may do a lot of damage.  Doing breed-specific research on these guys, especially “street pits,” is virtually useless.  My advice?  Try to pick a dog whose parents you can meet, and who are friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers, or who is at least 2.5-3 years old, and who is friendly and relaxed with you and other human strangers.  And don’t be an idiot by assuming this dog is especially good with children. Use normal precautions.

Breeders who take dogs back

I figure this one will tend to select for, if not guarantee, breeders who are careful about the health of their breeding stock, the behavior, and the number of litters they produce.  If they know they will have to take some dogs back, they are not going to be as careless about producing really sick or miserable or dangerous dogs.  Sure, there are breeders whose contracts specify the dog must come back to them and then don’t honor it. Things can change, and some people lie.  There is no perfect system.  But investigating this will yield a whole lot of information about how seriously the breeder stands by her dogs, and therefore, how hard she is trying to create puppies who will be loved in their homes, not costing their owners an arm and a leg in medical bills, so that they will stay.

Here is what does not qualify:

  • An oral commitment to take the dog back.  It’s not that oral contracts are unenforceable, but they are much harder to enforce in court and it’s much easier for a party to weasel about the exact terms.
  • Any commitment to replace the dog with another puppy in lieu of taking the dog back.
  • Any commitment to pay you money in lieu of taking a dog back.  (Some breeders will take a dog back, or refund your purchase price, or pay for medical care of genetic issues, or provide another puppy, and this is fine, if you have the choice.

But only the commitment to actually take the dog back puts enough pressure on the breeder to breed very, very carefully.) Sticking to this rule also helps put a lot of market pressure on breeders who are making dumb genetic decisions and worsening the health of dogs overall.  It may never affect your puppy, but it will affect the larger population of dogs and their health.  It’s just a good idea overall.

Hire a behavior consultant to pick a dog other than from a breeder

This probably sounds like a “full employment for Greta” kind of recommendation.  But it’s not.  This one comes from long, hard experience.  Even people who are pretty good at picking puppies in low-stress environments (e.g. breeder’s home) make terrible decisions in shelters.

First, it’s hard not to be overcome by compassion and pity, and you may make an emotional decision.  This is often not a good decision.  It will be a better world when shelters and rescues can all do a really good job of assessing temperament and not offering for adoption dogs who are likely to be miserable, dangerous, unable to bond, and so on.  But so far, many shelters are rescues either do not know how or refuse to protect adopters from their own ignorance and emotional responses.

Second, shelters, even good ones, are extremely stressful environments for dogs.  You will see behavior in shelters that is not typical for dogs.  Now, everyone is aware that dogs who are doing a lot of jumping and barking may not be so highly aroused once settled into a home, and may be willing to give that dog a break.

But the other side of the coin has ambushed so many of my clients that I now thing everyone really should have an experienced second pair of eyes on any candidate for adoption.  This other side of the coin is “shelter shutdown.”  Some dogs who are more fearful will simply shut down in the shelter.  They don’t do much of anything.  They just sit there.  Our normal human interpretation of this is: “This dog is so calm.  She’s not reactive to people.  She’s not barking at other dogs. I’m sure she’d be just a darling enjoying some petting while we sit in the living room drinking tea.”  More often than not, though, these dogs are afraid and have gone into a “freeze” response to threat.  Once the threat predictably lifts, and they have been in a lovely home for a few weeks or a few months, though, you will see the rest of the dog.  You may see terror. You may see extreme predation.  You may see resource guarding, an ingrained tendency to chase, hatred of men with hats, and so on.  These problems can be severe, and they can be totally masked in the shelter.

Less commonly, in shelter, dogs who have zero real social interest in humans can also appear very calm, and these dogs are not good pets.  Whether they are perfectly happy to aggress to get their away or handle threat, or are just completely detached, they do not have the ability to become loving companions.  And how awful to be in the position, six months later, of euthanizing a dog who is not dangerous, but has no use for you and no relationship with you?  This doesn’t seem to be common, but it’s a risk and these dogs tend to show as “calm” in the shelter.

Not uncommonly, dogs who seem very friendly and affiliative in the shelter are very affiliative… and also have separation anxiety.  There is some data suggesting that separation anxiety is overrepresented in the shelter environment.  Whether this is a cause or effect (or both) is not really known, but in any case, a dog who is wiggling all over you in the shelter may be a dog who will destroy your oak front door in two days of being left in the house, once he’s settled in. Unfortunately, these are very hard for even a good behavior consultant to spot, but there can be clues you would miss and your helpful consultant will notice.  I think this risk is generally lower in dogs who are fostered (shelter or rescue) since the SA will show up if the dog is fostered for any length of time.  Even then, however, there are a few dogs who are OK if there’s another dog in the house (as in virtually every foster home), but not if left totally alone, and they can slip through the cracks.

Finally, although I hope that the breeder you associate with is great at matching, you might want to hire a behavior consultant to help you pick a puppy or assess the litter.  Most breeders are quite happy to accommodate this, in my experience, and if they’re not, I’d consider it a red flag.  This is important if you have very specific needs (sports competitor, service dog candidate, etc.), since a lot of specific traits are needed, specific problems must be avoided, and the signs can be more subtle.  Someone just looking for a nice family dog may be able to weed out the shyest and the most overactive on their own.

Friendly parents

We don’t always have the opportunity to meet a dog or puppy’s parents, mostly if we are adopting an adult dog — especially one of unknown parentage.  But if you have that opportunity, take it.  It’s good to meet dad.  Dad provides 50% of the genes.  You’d like to see a healthy dad, and preferably one who’s had the requisite health tests for the breed and so on.  You’d like to see a dog who’s friendly and relaxed with strangers.

If it’s an “aloof” breed, make sure what you are seeing is “aloof,” not actually fearful or aggressive.  Don’t let a breeder tell you that a growl, spooky barking, or cringing and hiding qualify as aloof.  Aloofness means not rushing to greet, and calmly sizing someone up for a few minutes before greeting politely.  More important is the temperament of your potential dog’s mother. Not only does she also contribute half the genes, but her behavior around her baby puppies tells and teaches the puppy a great deal about the world.  If she is afraid or defensive when people come to see her babies, her babies are learning that people are scary and threatening — while they are at their very most impressionable, from the most important being in their world.  Same if they react badly to dogs approaching. If the breeder says she doesn’t want you to meet the dam, that is a huge red flag.  If the litter is in rescue, the same rules apply.

Unfortunately, a lot of litters in rescue come from less than optimal circumstances, and some of those mothers are feral or nearly so; terrified of people, defensive, and also chronically stressed.  The pups may be undernourished and they have certainly already learned the world is a scary place. These puppies have so many strikes against them that I could not in good conscience recommend adopting one.  However, if the mom is friendly and welcoming to all and seems healthy and nourished, things can still work out all right.

It’s often impossible to bring a strange dog in to meet a litter, but sometimes it can happen. The last time I assessed a litter, after checking with the breeder, I let my dog out of the car and allowed her to run right up to the pups’ kennel.  The mom calmly acknowledged my dog.  The pups ran over to sniff her nose.  No one was alarmed, upset, or afraid. That’s what I want to see!  This breeder had done a good job (and the pup I picked for my traumatized clients is doing wonderfully, and is quite bulletproof).

I know some rescue/shelter activists will be angered by my cautionary comments over adopting a puppy from rescue.  Many of them are unaware of the severe disadvantage these pups are at.  But puppies are not blank slates, and there are numerous factors (genetics, prenatal environment including nutrition and stress hormones, postnatal nutrition and stress hormones via milk, behavior of dam, treatment by other dogs and people, and so on) which can set the stage very, very early.  This is another blog post, but for purposes of picking a puppy, I would think long and hard before adopting a puppy from a stressed, undernourished, and/or unsocial/fearful/aggressive dam.  Cute does not cut it.  Love does not fix it. So there you are, the short version and the long explanations.

You’ll notice a bunch of stuff I didn’t put on my list and you may be confused or outraged.  Some of it (health testing, early puppy socialization, etc.) will tend to be covered by some of my broader recommendations.  Plus, if you get a puppy at 8 weeks, you have another 6-8 weeks to do proper socialization, so a breeder’s or foster’s failure to do what I would do is not a deal killer.  I specifically will always leave out the following:

  • Puppy is a purebred. Nothing about pure breeding guarantees health or good temperament or good breeding practices.  Judge those on their own merits, without trying to use “purebred” as a proxy.”
  • Puppy is AKC registered.  See above.  This gets you nothing except the ability to show in AKC conformation or certain other events.  If you care about those, you can still use information in this article.  Most people don’t care and shouldn’t care.  Unless you are playing squash on an indoor floor, you do not need crosstraining shoes with nonmarking soles.  This is the equivalent.  You really only need AKC registration if you have a specific need for it, and if you do, you already know that.  Otherwise it’s worthless.
  • Breed/conformation champion parents or grandparents.  This can feel glamorous, but it tells you little to nothing about your future dog’s health, behavior, or aptitudes.  This is another huge discussion, but for all practical purposes, it is irrelevant for the vast majority of dog owners.
  • Other stuff I’m sure people will attempt to call me on and will be outraged by the omission of from my list.  I’ll try to respond individually to respectful posts.  I will respond once the first time an issue is raised, and then I’ll be done, so if you don’t get a response to your question, please read the comments.

Thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Picking a dog

  1. Thanks for the great post, I know what you mean there is hordes of info about choosing a dog. I think you really narrowed down to be easily understood and remembered. Great advice to seriously consider the negative traits of a breed. A lot of good info to consider in choosing a puppy. We have 2 dogs and do ability. One dog paces instead of walking and this effects his jumping. So wish that I had taken someone with me who could have evaluated structure and gait when I choose this puppy, I didn’t know what to look for then but I do now but I don’t have an eye or the knowledge to make those judgments. You have so many good points about buying from a good breeder. I was so uninformed went we picked our puppies but I’m thankful that we bought from good breeders that helped us. They made sure we couple meet both parents and explaining to use the different temperament of the puppies in the litter. They helping us choose the one that would fit our family and they both put it in our sales contract that they would take back the dog at anytime in its life if we could not keep the dog for any reason at all.
    Thanks for your post.

    • Thank you, Charlotte. It sounds like you hit the jackpot with your breeder. I love to hear stories like that! I know there are many excellent breeders out there, but as with almost everything in life, the bad or mediocre often outnumber the good, and further, are much more energetic about marketing. Hope your Shelties are joyful and you are well.

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