Whether you’re searching for your first best friend or the next one, choosing a dog to welcome into your home and heart takes some thought.
The right decision is the difference between an uneasy relationship and a match made in heaven. Many people choose a dog without much reflection, and honestly, a lot of the time, things work out fine. Sometimes, though, a combination of unfortunate choices and bad luck leads to trouble. Whether it’s an incompatibility issue or serious behavior problems, a mismatch can sure get in the way of a loving relationship and the companionship we seek from dogs.
Thoughtful consideration about the kind of dog who best suits your lifestyle will help you avoid some common mistakes: Getting a long-haired-needs-to-be-brushed-every-day dog if you never bother to comb your own hair. Adopting a committed barker if you live in an apartment. Picking an athletic dog because nothing else has made your dream of leaving your couch-potato ways behind come true.
Since some traits are more common in certain breeds than others, choosing by breed can be a good place to start. There are exceptions, but few will argue that a Dachshund is as good a backpacking companion as a Labrador Retriever, for example, or that a Sheltie and a Greyhound are equally likely to bark excessively. Many people, including me, have a particular fondness for mixed-breed dogs, but if you know you want a dog to work sheep or some other highly specific task, choosing a purebred who has been bred to perform certain behaviors has advantages.
Regardless of your personal preferences, however, a purebred dog isn’t guaranteed to have a good temperament or good health, or be compatible with you. (Mixed-breeds come without this guarantee as well.)
It’s also common to focus on the type of dog and fail to give enough consideration to the individual dog, even though that factor is so critical to everyone’s future happiness. This stage of the selection process requires careful thought as well.
Remember that what is most likely to make you happy is the dog’s behavior, not the dog’s looks. That sounds obvious, but it’s often forgotten when you meet a dog who is so eye-catching that your heart melts, followed by your brain. I know it’s hard to resist, but don’t let beauty trump good sense.
Appearances can lead you astray in other ways. It’s unwise to pick a dog because he looks like one you used to love. That brown spot shaped like a crescent moon right above his tail is not the trait that made your angel dog from childhood an angel. Ditto for the color of his eyes, the tendency for one ear to be up and the other down, or his endearingly comical leggy proportions.
The best predictor of a dog’s behavior is the parents’ behavior. This information is not always available, but if it is, pay attention! If someone tells you that you can’t meet the father because he’s aggressive, don’t even consider a puppy from a litter he sired. The mother’s behavior is just as critical, so if it’s possible to know anything about her or to meet her, take note of her actions. Ask what she (and the sire) would do if a child took her toy, or if she met a strange dog on the street, or if a strange man went in for a hug, and pay attention to the answers.
Whether you are adopting a puppy, an adolescent or an adult, never ignore the most important predictor of a dog’s behavior, which is the behavior of the dog’s parents. Information on parentage can be hard to come by, especially for adolescents and adults, but always ask about it. You may be surprised to find out that some specifics are known.
And while I think it’s prudent to consider temperament tests or other behavioral assessments, I wouldn’t accept them as gospel. A recent study of the value of such tests performed in shelters found that of the many things they measured, only fear and friendliness had any predictive value once the dog was placed in a home (Mornement et al. 2014). Clearly, temperament tests don’t come through on their promises to tell us all we want to know about dogs before adopting them (Hekman 2014). Still, we can’t pretend they’re pointless, either. Surely it’s better to do some sort of evaluation rather than play eenie-meenie-miney-mo, or choose the dog you think is better looking than the others.
It bodes well when a dog solicits play or responds to your attempts to play. A playful dog in a strange situation with an unfamiliar person has not been shut down by fear or stress, and that’s good. There are plenty of scared, stressed dogs who make wonderful pets and are loved beyond measure, but let’s face it, dogs who don’t chronically suffer from either of these negative emotions have advantages. One study showed that dogs who responded rather than ignored people’s attempts to play with them were more likely to be adopted (Protopopova and Wynne 2014). This suggests that playfulness already influences adoption, whether we consciously attend to it or not.
I’m favorably impressed by dogs who are comfortable being touched. Enjoying petting and seeking close physical contact are great signs, but not deal breakers if dogs aren’t immediately into it. When they’re in a strange environment, it’s natural for them to want to sniff around and explore a bit. However, while an instant desire for petting is not essential, later on, once they’ve calmed down, it’s a reasonable expectation.
Speaking of calming down, I pay a lot of attention to whether or not a dog is capable of doing so, and how long it takes. I have no problem with dogs who get excited. Perhaps they’ve been in a kennel for a long time and are short on exercise and social contact. Naturally, they are thrilled to greet you and run around a new place. Still, a dog who shows no signs of getting over that initial arousal and excitement within a few minutes may struggle with self-control in a lot of situations, and that’s not ideal in a pet dog.
Whether the dog leans toward being playful or toward wanting physical contact, it’s smart to choose a dog who engages with you. Exactly how they do that and what appeals to you personally are both matters of individual choice, but it’s important that they express an interest. Otherwise, you may be swimming upstream in trying to build a strong relationship and to train the dog.
I also like to evaluate a dog’s trainability by observing how quickly he learns a new behavior and how interested he is in the process. Teaching a dog to sit or lie down, to leave a piece of food on the ground, or to touch a target stick are a few great options for assessing trainability. A dog who can be trained demonstrates focus and attention, and an interest in you or in food (or perhaps both).
It’s promising when a dog recovers quickly from being startled by a loud noise, such as a book dropped on the floor. If a dog gets scared and hides for hours, that’s a problem. What you’re looking for is a dog who, though startled, takes only a moment to return to his normal emotional state. It indicates an ability to regulate his emotions and deal with the many little shocks that life brings.
Although there are a lot of things to do in order to choose a dog who is a good match for you, you also need to know what not to do: Don’t pick a dog out of pity; it’s not the best way to start a relationship. Remember, you are giving a home to one dog no matter which dog you choose, so choose the one you really want. Don’t rush into it or acquire a dog on impulse. It makes things harder on everyone if you bring a dog home when you are not ready emotionally, financially or logistically. Don’t buy from a pet store or any place that gets dogs from puppy mills. If you do, you are supporting a system that harms dogs. When there is no demand for dogs from these places, dogs will no longer be bred for them or mistreated in them.
If you are planning on welcoming a puppy rather than an adolescent or adult dog, there are a couple of extra “don’ts” to consider: Don’t pick the puppy who is off by himself in the corner while the others tumble around together. That “lone wolf” sort of puppy may be endearing and pull at your heart, but he is not exhibiting normal social behavior. The dog who does not interact will be less likely to build strong connections with you or with other dogs, and far more likely to have serious behavior problems that will distress you and your family down the road.
Similarly, resist the temptation to pick the puppy who is running over everyone and showing no self-control or respect for boundaries. Such “mack truck” puppies are likely to be that way throughout life, and it’s not a trait that’s fun to live with. Lack of impulse control can make training, relationships and daily life challenging beyond description.
There are many, many dogs out there—in shelters and rescue groups (including breed rescue), and from responsible breeders—who could be a great friend as well as a family member you can’t imagine life without. May your search lead you to one who will become your true love!