In This Chapter
- Deciding on your dog’s age and sex
- Recognizing signs of a healthy dog
- Detecting signs of great pet temperament
- Considering a mixed-breed or purebred dog
So many adorable dogs gaze at you from the shelter kennels, barking and wiggling, or coyly blinking and flirting, each trying to get your attention. If only you could take them all! But, of course, you can’t. What you can do is focus on exactly what you want and need in a dog, and what kind of dog works best in your home and with your lifestyle. The fact that the animal shelter is full of dogs is proof that too many people buy dogs that aren’t right for them. This chapter helps you make smart decisions on each of these issues, so that when you choose your dog, you know you’ve done the right thing. Sure, you should listen to your heart, but let your brain have a say, too.
Puppies Are Precious, but . . .
Just look at that fluffy wiggling ball of fuzz, those big innocent eyes, that madly wagging tail. Many people who want to adopt a dog are hoping to adopt a puppy, and that’s no surprise. Puppies can be practically irresistible. Shelters have a much easier time placing puppies than they do older dogs. The downside, however, is that many of these puppies wind up back at the shelter as soon as they hit that difficult adolescent period, when they’re big, rambunctious, and particularly challenging.
Before you decide that you know you want a puppy, make sure you take a good hard look at your options. Sometimes breed, size, or temperament of a dog is more important than its age. A chubby, round yellow Labrador Retriever puppy may be the cutest thing you ever saw in your entire life, but how will you feel when he grows to 75 pounds of explosive energy, knocking favorite knickknacks off your coffee table with his big wagging tail? Adopting either a puppy or an adult dog each has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, so consider the pros and cons I present in the sections that follow before making a decision.
Pros and cons of adopting a puppy
They’re tiny, they’re cute, and they tug at your heartstrings with that ferocious little tug-of-war puppy growl. But do you really want to adopt a puppy? Consider the pros and cons in the following lists. The pros of puppy adoption provide you with:
- Control over exactly when and how well the puppy is socialized and trained, so your puppy learns good behavior early on and thus avoids bad experiences
- An opportunity for you and your puppy to bond right from the beginning
- A fun, playful, and adorable companion
- Plenty of attention from people who just want to pet the cute puppy
- Short-lived high energy that mellows into mature adolescence in one to two years
- A longer amount of time together than when you adopt an older dog
The cons of puppy adoption strap you with:
- A pet with behaviors you don’t like, if you fail to control exactly how well the puppy is socialized and trained.
- The chore of housetraining your puppy, a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating task. If you stop paying attention, even for a moment, you’ll have puppy puddles and piles to clean up for what seems like forever.
- Chewed up, well, everything. Puppies need to chew . . . a lot. You must provide them with things to chew and be very careful to keep things they are not allowed to chew out of reach.
- A seeming inexhaustible need for more exercise and stimulation than most adult dogs. Puppies, by nature, are energetic.
- Ill-mannered behaviors. Of course, manners are all human, and puppy behaviors are entirely natural, but even so, in our human world, puppies have no manners whatsoever. They may nip fingers, jump on people, bark at everything, pull on the leash, steal and chew up your stuff, pick on other pets, dig holes in your yard, try to escape the fence to play with the neighbors, and keep you up at night because they want to play. You have to teach them everything.
- A potentially scary picture of the unknown. Without ever seeing a puppy’s parents, you have no idea what the puppy will look like when it grows up — especially true in the case of mixed breeds. Many shelter puppies that look like purebreds grow up to look much different as adults.
Pros and cons of adopting an adult dog
Adult dogs can make absolutely wonderful adopted pets. After adopting a puppy, many people decide never to do that again, and vow to adopt only adult dogs in the future.
Many adult dogs in shelters are wonderful, well-behaved family pets that lost their homes because of no fault of their own. Some are there because of some perfectly natural dog behavior their owners just didn’t know how to manage. Others are there because divorce, a move, or an owner’s death resulted in these pets losing their homes. Others are there because they are no longer the cute puppies to which their owners first were attracted. The most common age for dogs to be surrendered to shelters is in the difficult adolescent phase and early adulthood, usually between about 9 months and 2 years, when dogs typically develop some challenging behaviors backed up by a full-grown size. Rather than work on these issues with training and socialization, pet owners often just give up.
Before you decide that you want an adult dog, carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages and weigh them within the context of your own lifestyle.
An adult dog may be the perfect fit for you because it may already be:
- Housetrained. Many dogs housetrain young and never forget.
- Finished teething. Adult dogs typically don’t chew and nip the way puppies do, although there are exceptions.
- Well versed in basic training. That is, they know how to walk on a leash, obey basic cues like “Sit” and “Come,” and generally behave appropriately in the house.
- Well socialized. In other words, friendly and accustomed to many different kinds of people and situations.
- More laid back. Adult dogs aren’t quite as wild and energetic as puppies.
- Almost through adolescence. Although adolescent dogs initially may be high energy, this condition won’t last much longer, especially when you provide plenty of outlets for that energy.
- More adaptable and willing to bond closely with anyone who takes them in, feeds them, and gives them a home and some attention.
Many people claim that adult dogs they adopted from shelters and rescue groups seem to know they’ve been given a second chance and that the people adopting them have done something wonderful by taking them in. These pet owners often claim they get a strong sense of gratitude from their dogs.
- A quick study. Adult dogs typically learn quickly and enjoy training sessions as a fun way to spend time with you. You can teach old dogs new tricks.
- More readily available. Shelters have a harder time placing adult dogs. Adopting one saves an animal that may otherwise never find a home.
Despite all the wonderful things that can come with adult dogs, they may also present challenges that you need to be aware of before you decide to adopt one. Some of these challenges are
- Behavioral problems. Resource guarding is one — snapping when you try to take away food or treats. Others are housetraining problems, dislike of children, or more serious issues like aggression or self-mutilation in response to anxiety.
- Bad habits that take extra training to undo. Excessive barking, digging in the yard, or chewing on your shoes are examples.
- A lengthy adjustment period because the dog was in another home for so long. Dogs may mourn lost loved ones or seem depressed.
- Difficulty bonding. Some dogs need to be taught to trust humans again.
- Too short a time in your life. You may only have a few more years with an adult dog. Larger breeds, especially, have life spans of only 6 to 8 years to begin with. If your adopted Great Dane is already 4 years old, well, you do the math.
Deciding on a Male or Female
Just as some shelters have a harder time finding homes for adult dogs than they do for puppies, many have a harder time finding homes for male dogs than they do for female dogs. Pet owners often say they want a female, a factor that at times is even more important to them than the breed. Yet males and females exhibit virtually no consistent difference in behavior. In some breeds, males actually make more affectionate pets, and females are more independent and have a higher drive to work. In other breeds, males tend to be more aggressive and the females more laid-back. But even these generalizations have many exceptions. And, when pets are spayed or neutered, some of these differences become even less significant.
Trying to predict a dog’s personality based on its gender is impossible. That’s why choosing a breed or breed mix or any individual that has qualities you enjoy is much more important than choosing a male over a female. Look at the breed, age, grooming needs, and temperament of a dog before you consider gender. You may be thankful that you didn’t limit your choices so much when you find your canine soul mate is the sex that’s opposite of what you thought you wanted.
Identifying Signs of a Healthy Dog
No matter what age, size, sex, or breed you’re looking for, the health of the dog you’re considering is one of the most important factors to evaluate before you adopt. Although many adopted dogs have minor health issues that are easy to resolve — a skin irritation, ear infection, or minor arthritis, basic sound health keeps basic vet bills at a minimum. If you adopt a dog with serious health problems such as chronic kidney trouble, heartworms, glaucoma, or heart disease, the vet bill can quickly skyrocket. Maybe you’re willing to take on that expense for the sake of an ailing pet, but unless you’re specifically prepared to adopt a dog with special medical needs, adopting a healthy dog probably is one of your top priorities.
Fortunately, most shelters and rescue groups have dogs checked by veterinarians and treated for any health issues before making them available for adoption. If you want to adopt a dog that has a minor health problem such as ear mites or a skin rash, you can ask the shelter to have these issues treated first. Although the shelter may not have the resources for such treatment, if it’s something the shelter’s vet overlooked, it may be willing to take care of the treatment for you. You can expect the shelter to have records of all vaccinations, dewormings, pest control measures, tests, medications, and any other medical diagnoses or treatments that have been administered during the dog’s stay at the shelter. In some cases, the dogs’ previous owners may be another source of information, providing medical records or at least the name of the vet caring for the dog before it was surrendered.
Beyond written documents, however, you can tell a great deal about a dog’s health just by looking. When you evaluate a shelter or rescue dog, look for the signs of bright, vibrant health that I describe in the following sections.
Bright eyes and bushy tails
On first examination of a dog, you need to notice a few obvious signs of good health, including:
- Bright eyes: Eyes need to be bright and clear with no cloudiness and no discharge. Dogs older than 5 or 6 years old may have slight eye cloudiness caused by progressive hardening of the lenses, appearing as a barely detectible blue in the pupils and eventually a grey. This symptom is normal for older dogs, but milky opaque lenses are a sign of cataracts that cause blindness and need to be fixed, requiring expensive surgery. Note: Some breeds tend to have tear stains, including Poodles, Shih Tzu, Maltese, and other white or light-colored dogs. Tear stains are not usually a sign of ill health; they can even be remedied with some special products. However, a thick gooey discharge and redness or irritation in a dog’s eyes may be a sign of an eye infection that requires medication.
- Tight eyelids: Eyelids need to fit tightly around the eye and not hang loose, except in the case of loose-skinned, droopy-faced dogs like Bloodhounds and Bassett Hounds. Some dogs have entropion, a genetic condition in which the lower eyelid curls inward, irritating the cornea, or another similar condition called ectropion, where the lower eyelid curls outward, hanging and enabling debris to become trapped under the lid. These conditions are easily fixed with a simple surgery, but they need to be addressed.
- Discharge-free noses: The dog’s nose also needs to be free of any discharge, and the dog shouldn’t be wheezing or coughing. These symptoms can signal a respiratory infection or other problems. A cold wet nose isn’t necessarily a barometer of good health despite the old wives’ tale, and a cold wet oozing nose is certainly not a sign of good health.
- Polished ivories: Take a look at those teeth. They should be white and clean and mostly free of tartar buildup. If they aren’t, you need to do something about it. Tartar isn’t necessarily a reason not to adopt a dog. Clean teeth are important because dental bacteria can travel through the bloodstream, infecting the dog’s heart, causing heart disease, and decreasing life span. Teeth with a lot of tartar may need to be professionally cleaned by your veterinarian while your dog is under anesthesia. Generally a safe procedure, anesthesia can be risky for some breeds and for older dogs. This procedure also can get pricey. If your dog has just a little tartar, your vet may be able to scrape it off without putting your dog under.
- Clean, infection-free ears: Ear infections, usually caused by yeast, are common in dogs, especially dogs that have been wandering outside for extended periods and dogs with floppy ears (moisture and bacteria can get trapped inside the ear). Even dogs with short, prick ears can get ear infections because the ears are wide open to the introduction of bacteria. Another common ear problem is ear mites. Signs that a dog has an ear infection, or mites, include scratching, head shaking, and pawing at the ears. Ear infections must be treated by a vet but usually are easy to resolve.
A dog’s coat — whether short, tight, and smooth as silk; long, flowing, and glamorous; or harsh, crispy, and wiry — is his crowning glory. The condition of the coat can also be an important indicator of the dog’s overall health. Many health problems manifest in the skin and coat.
Parasites like fleas, ticks, and mange mites not only are uncomfortable and cause itching, but they also can transmit serious, even fatal diseases and result in rashes, allergic reactions, and massive hair loss and sores, including the red, inflamed, painful areas called hot spots. Skin infections — common in animals that are injured while wandering — can be caused by staph or other bacteria or by a wound that becomes infected. Likewise, immune system and other systemic problems can cause dull coats, hair loss, and skin problems.
Any of the following skin-and-coat conditions can indicate a health problem that needs to be addressed:
- Patches of missing hair: Even small patches of missing hair can signal a skin infection that requires treatment. Large patches can signal mange, which is caused by tiny skin mites.
- Signs of fleas: You may see tiny black specks — flea dirt — or the little brown hopping bugs themselves.
- Ticks: Ticks can be as tiny as pinheads, or when attached to the skin, swollen with blood to the size of acorns.
- Signs of mites: Mites are tiny black bugs that you may be able to see. They are smaller than fleas. Signs of mites include itching, ear irritation, red scaly patches, rashes, and hair loss.
- Hot spots, those red, itchy, inflamed, weeping wounds caused by excessive scratching: Hot spots can be the result of many possible causes. The most common are allergic reactions to fleabites, food, or other environmental irritants, or an irritated or infected injury. Although usually not serious, hot spots are incredibly uncomfortable for the dog and can be difficult to resolve because the dog will keep scratching and licking the wound.
- Dull, thin coat: A dull coat can signal diseased skin. Keep in mind, however, that this symptom also can be a sign of something as normal as a seasonal coat change or a post-delivery hair loss (in some breeds, the female loses much of her coat after having a litter of puppies). If coat changes signal a serious disease, such as hypothyroidism, it will have to be treated by a veterinarian.
- Lumps or bumps in the skin or under the skin: These afflictions may be cysts or tumors that may be simple to remove or that may be cancerous.
Bringing up the rear
Just what is under that tail? Take a look. A dog’s rear end needs to be clean and free of discharge and signs of irritation or infection. Dogs with worms sometimes have infected rears, and in some cases, tiny worms are visible around the anus. If you get a chance, you also need to take a peek at the dog’s stool (just don’t do it right before lunch!). Some worms are visible in the stool. The stool should also be firm. Loose, very dark, or bloody stool can signify a problem with worms or other intestinal conditions.
Puppies commonly are infected by parasitic worms in-utero and, if not treated, they can carry these worms into adulthood. Problems with worms can be resolved with medication. Likewise, newly admitted dogs commonly get temporary diarrhea even with mucus or blood in it, caused by the stress of caging, new noises, loss of family, and dietary changes. This condition usually resolves itself in the first week. If you see abnormal stool in the cage, tell the staff and ask how long the dog has been in the shelter. If he’s been there longer than a week, ask if a parasite check with a microscope has been done and/or if the dog has been dewormed.
The great big world: How the dog interacts
A dog’s temperament is crucial in determining health. Dogs that are shy, hesitant, guarded, cowering, or growling and aggressive may actually be in pain or discomfort because of a health problem that isn’t otherwise detectable. Temperament also is an indicator of personality (explained in the section that follows), but don’t overlook the possibility that poor health is causing any temperament problem you see.
Although any of the following signs can simply be related to the stress of the environment or the dog’s situation (the following section tells you more about evaluating temperament), factors that look like temperament problems but can actually indicate a health problem are:
- Cowering, extreme shyness, hesitation, or reluctance to be touched
- Backing away, hiding, or avoiding people and other dogs
- Whining, whimpering, crying, or agitation
- Constant scratching
- Circling, pacing, panting, or other nervous behavior
- Excessive drooling, especially accompanied by panting
- Growling, nipping, and other signs of aggression, although no dog behaving aggressively should be offered for adoption so please alert shelter workers if you notice signs of aggression
Many shelters do temperament testing on the animals they hope to offer for adoption, so they get a clear idea of the kind of pet home that best suits the pet and can separate pets that simply won’t be able to thrive in a pet home because of a bad temperament. The temperament testing that shelters usually do can be as simple as checking the dog’s behavior with other dogs and people, giving it basic commands to see whether it has any previous training, and testing the dog with cats and children.
Some shelters do more intensive temperament testing following specific methods recommended by certain trainers. Ask your shelter what type of temperament testing it has done and whether you can read the test results. I’d be wary of a shelter that refuses to let you read the results, because it may be trying to hide the fact that it doesn’t do any temperament testing. The dog may nevertheless be perfectly adoptable. However, you want to know as much as possible about the animal you plan to adopt.
Evaluating a dog’s temperament is extremely important. It can spell the difference between a trustworthy, trainable family pet and disaster in the form of injured people, angry neighbors, lawsuits, eviction, and a death sentence for the dog. A pet dog with a bad temperament is a serious liability. Bad temperament isn’t the same thing as behaviors you don’t like, such as lack of housetraining or barking too much. Bad temperament means the dog cannot be trusted around humans or other pets because of aggression or that the dog is so painfully shy or unsocialized that his quality of life suffers and he can’t form healthy relationships with people. Shy dogs often bite out of fear, too. Clearly, animals with bad temperaments don’t make good pets.
Beyond bad temperaments are variable temperaments. Some dogs are outgoing; some are reserved. Some are vocal or pushy or assertive; some are shy, retiring, and quiet. Temperament is akin to personality. It comes in many different guises, and understanding a potential pet’s — and your own — temperament helps you choose a dog with which you can live, get along, and relate.
Not everyone agrees that accurately analyzing the canine temperament is even possible in just a few minutes or after just a few meetings. In general, remember that determining a dog’s temperament is never a quick-and-easy thing to do. It involves a careful process of observation of and interaction with the animal. Some signs of bad temperament are obvious — growling, snarling, constantly quaking with fear — but many signs are not. Other aspects of temperament tend to unfold slowly as the dog becomes more comfortable in your presence. That’s one reason why spending several extended visits with a dog before agreeing to an adoption is such a good idea. The more comfortable the dog is around you, the more his real temperament — shy, reserved, outgoing, fearless, aggressive, utterly friendly — will come out.
Exploring the effects of breed temperament
Assessing the temperament of any given dog is a tricky issue at best. Complicating matters are temperaments that once were accepted as part of a dog’s breed but now are no longer suitable for the same animal as a pet. Sled dogs, hound dogs, guardian dogs, herding dogs, and many other types of working dogs, for example, needed extremely high levels of energy and endurance, an instinct to run long distances to track down game, strong territorial instincts, or instincts for nipping at heels to keep livestock in one place to earn their keep. When adopting one of these dogs, you need to know about these breed traits.
The breed or mix of breeds in a dog has a big impact on that dog’s temperament
and its physical traits — its coat and size, for example. Dogs with some
sporting dog in them (like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German
Shorthaired Pointers) are relatively large and high in energy. Labrador Retriever
mixes (see Figure 4-1) are among the most common dogs in animal shelters,
often because people expect a placid temperament but are overwhelmed
with the activity needs of a younger Lab or Lab mix.
Figure 4-1: Lab mixes make devoted, intelligent, trainable companions as long as you give them lots of exercise.
Knowing a dog’s natural tendencies is an important key to matching it with an individual or family. You can’t expect a Border Collie to be a couch potato or a Jack Russell Terrier not to bark; it simply isn’t in their nature. If you do, you’re just setting yourself up for failure and setting your dog up for another disappointment.
Ask the shelter or rescue group for help finding out the breed or mix of the animal you’re thinking about adopting. Most shelters and rescue groups label dogs as a breed or breed mix to give you an idea of what you can expect. Consider this information a guideline for helping you to choose a dog, but remember that no test can predict or guarantee exact behavior a few months down the road. Some general trends in breed temperament include the following, but remember that many exceptions exist for every rule:
- Sporting breeds: Retrievers, Pointers, and Spaniels are high energy and need plenty of activity, but they’re generally easier than many other breeds to train.
- Large working breeds: Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, and Boxers tend to be territorial and protective. They need to be thoroughly socialized to keep them from becoming aggressive.
- Terriers: Jack Russell Terriers, Fox Terriers, Westies, and Schnauzers are high energy and bark a lot. They like to dig, jump, and can rarely be deterred from chasing small furry animals.
- Hounds: Beagles, Dachshunds, and Greyhounds follow scents or moving targets without regard to you or traffic or anything else. They are independent and can be difficult to train.
- Northern breeds: Siberian Huskies and Malamutes are extremely high energy, independent, and notoriously difficult to train. They are great at sports like sled pulling but can become destructive without enough mental and physical challenge.
- Toy breeds: Chihuahuas, Shih Tzu, and Maltese tend to bark a lot and can be prone to shyness as a protective mechanism caused by their diminutive size or aggression when they’re unsocialized or overly protected. See Figure 4-2 for an example of a toy breed mix.
- Herding breeds: Border Collies, Shelties, and Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent and trainable but need a challenging job and plenty of exercise, or they can become destructive. Some herding breeds tend to nip at heels to keep children, other pets, or anyone else in the herd.
Figure 4-2: Small mixed breeds like this Miniature Pinscher/Pug cross probably have some toy breed and/or terrier in their genetic mix. Most are playful, friendly, and tend to bark a lot.
For more information about breed characteristics, check out the sections on “What Kind of Dog Is That? The Joy of Mixed Breeds” and “Adopting a Purebred Dog” later in this chapter.
Understanding the basics of temperament
So how do you know what’s good or bad about a dog’s temperament?
First of all, observe how the dog acts in the shelter or foster home. Is he active or laid-back? Does he seem nervous or calm? Does he follow or stay closely focused on people or is he more concerned with doing his own thing, exploring independently, or relaxing as if deep in thought?
Next, observe the dog as you interact with him. Is he interested in you or relatively indifferent? Does he try to engage you in active play and cuddle with you, or does he try to avoid you? Does he readily accept petting, or does he shy away? Does he jump all over you, or stand nicely, waiting to see what you may do next?
Observing these behaviors takes time and effort, so don’t expect to be able to immediately adopt a dog after your first meeting, especially if you have any reservations about the dog’s temperament. Spend several get-acquainted sessions with the dog to gain a more accurate feel for its individual personality. If you know your dog’s breed or can guess what breeds may have contributed to his mix, you can research the typical temperaments for which each breed is known and compare them to the way your potential pet acts.
Although every dog has a unique personality, a few red flags can signal temperament problems that can become difficult to manage in a pet situation. As you watch how a candidate for adoption responds to the world, look out for the following warning signs:
- Extreme shyness: A dog with a good pet temperament won’t act fearful and refuse to let you touch him. Hiding, cowering, crying, and flinching from touch are bad signs. Extremely shy dogs may live stressful lives, suffer from ill health, and never really bond with their owners. They can also bite out of fear.
- Aggression: A serious temperament flaw, aggression puts many dogs into the unadoptable category. Signs of aggression include teeth baring, growling, lunging, nipping, snapping, biting, and chasing. Aggression can be caused by extreme fear, an overdeveloped sense of dominance, a lack of trust for humans, past abuse, or a congenital bad temperament. Avoid any dogs that show signs of aggression toward children or small pets. If, however, you decide to adopt a dog that shows aggressive tendencies, be prepared to provide plenty of targeted training with the help of a professional who specializes in overcoming aggressive behavior problems. Don’t take on a project like this if you have children or if children frequently visit your house.
- Hyperactivity: Many dogs, especially puppies and adolescents, have high energy and require a lot of exercise and interaction. This is normal. Dogs that are truly hyperactive usually are so high energy that they rarely calm down and are virtually uncontrollable. They have a hard time focusing on you, listening to you, or interacting with you even after you’ve spent several hours with them. Pet owners will have a hard time fulfilling their exercise needs or training them.
Discerning the difference between a high-energy dog and a hyperactive dog can be difficult at first. Some dogs are hyperactive in adolescence and calm down when they’re older, but you probably won’t be able to tell for sure. Some breeds naturally are active, such as sporting dogs like Retrievers and Pointers and herding dogs like Border Collies and Shelties. Others received so little attention for so long that they simply are frantic to get any attention they can from you. None of these cases is a sign of a hyperactive temperament. So before you cross these dogs off your list, remember that many of these dogs just need a loving home, plenty of exercise, and some good old-fashioned attention.
These general observations probably give you a basic sense of your dog’s temperament, but you also need to hear what shelter or rescue workers have observed about the dog you’re considering. They’ve probably interacted much longer and more intensively with the dog than you have and thus can offer you some good insights.
Go-getters, chill-outers, and wait-and-seers
By observing the dog’s temperament as suggested in the preceding section, you can begin getting a sense of the dog’s personality. He may be outgoing or shy, self-confident or needy, active or sedentary, social or reserved. These various personality traits, explained in a bit more detail in the list that follows, can help you determine whether you and the dog are a good match:
- The go-getters: These dogs are always on the move, always excited about the next new game, project, or travel opportunity. They relish the unfamiliar adventure. Go-getters love to hike, run, play sports, and depending on the breed or breed combination, engage in high-energy dog sports like agility, flyball, canine freestyle, rally, dock jumping, earthdog, disk sports, water retrieving, tracking, or hunting tests. They’re active, energetic, and great matches for people who lead active, physical, athletic lifestyles.
- The chill-outers: Although as puppies and adolescents, dogs tend to be at their most active, some individual dogs are more laid-back — chill-outers, if you will. Like some people, they tend not to get all riled up but, instead, are typically adaptable, easy-going, and prefer hanging out or cuddling up with you on the couch to going for a five-mile run. Sure, they need exercise and enjoy a rousing game of fetch the same as the next pooch, but they generally are less likely to run you ragged. This canine personality is perfect for the more sedentary, stay-at-home type of pet owners who want a companion rather than a four-legged dynamo bouncing off the walls from boredom.
- The wait-and-seers: These dogs like to hang back a little until they’re sure about things. Rather than plunge into the next new event, they’re more hesitant. Whether pausing until they recognize something familiar or waiting for the go-ahead from their trusted keeper, these dogs are simply a little more reserved. When meeting someone new, they won’t typically dash up to the stranger with their tails wagging. They may wait patiently or even stiffen and be on guard until they’re sure the new person is okay.
Some breeds tend to be wait-and-seers, particularly guardian breeds with their long history of serving as watchdogs to owner and property. Some toy dogs also react this way, perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation. When you weigh four pounds, you have to be careful with whom or in what you get tangled. These cautious, reserved dogs make admirable and intelligent pets, constant companions for people who can spend plenty of time with them because they typically bond closely to one or two people. If well socialized, they can be trusted to act appropriately when around people, not nipping or growling when someone friendly tries to approach you or them.
Regardless of the dog’s personality, you need to look for a type of pet with which you can deal and relate. Just as in human relationships, some personalities simply mesh well together, while others clash. The dog-human team that meshes has a strong foundation for building a healthy, close relationship for the rest of the dog’s life.
What Kind of Dog Is That? The Joy of Mixed Breeds
Most dogs in animal shelters are mixed breeds. These dogs can give you all the joys and all the challenges of purebreds. They can be calm or active, grooming them can be easy or time-consuming, and they can be challenging or a breeze to train. Above all, mixed breeds are dogs, just like purebreds. They respond best to plenty of affection, attention, mental and physical activity, and consistent, positive training.
Although mixed breeds are harder to place than purebreds — perhaps because they’re considered common — they’re anything but disposable. A mixed breed can be a wonderful addition to your life and family. In fact, mixed breeds have a particular appeal to many pet owners. These Heinz 57 dogs come with a potpourri of wonderful traits, and each has a personality all its own. Nobody can stereotype your adorable mutt like they may be able to do with a purebred.
When you adopt a mixed breed dog, you probably want to know what kind of dog you’re getting, or, if it’s a puppy, what kind of a dog it will grow up to be. For that you need to do a little detective work.
First up is figuring out (or trying to) what kind of dog your mixed breed is — in other words, what breeds created it? Mixed breeds can look much like a particular breed or have an appearance that’s a mystery to all. Nevertheless, the best way to tell what your mixed breed dog is made of is to take a good close look at breed photos and see which ones resemble your dog. Remember, however, that this method can be misleading, because many purebreds originally were mixes of other, older breeds.
Chances are the dog you want to adopt is a mix of some of the more common breeds. In fact, most mixed-breed dogs in shelters come from some combination of two or more of the following breeds: Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Beagle, Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, Chow Chow, American Pit Bull Terrier, Rat Terrier, Fox Terrier, and Chihuahua. You’re likely to see other breeds mixed in too.
Are mixed breeds healthier?
You may have heard both sides of the argument about whether mixed breeds are healthier than purebred dogs.
One side claims that mixed breeds are more “natural,” and therefore healthier, and that mixed breeds have better hybrid vigor, meaning their gene pool is larger and comes from a more diverse dog population. This trait, proponents say, naturally reduces the chances that genetic diseases will occur. In the smaller gene pool of a purebred population, they add, chances are greater that both parents (when mating) carry a recessive gene for harmful genetic mutations.
The other side disagrees, claiming that purebred dogs don’t develop genetic problems any more often than mixed breeds and asserting that you simply are more informed about which genetic problems
purebred dogs bring to the table and are more likely to develop. Because purebreds often are products of breeders working hard to eliminate genetic disease, this side claims their dogs may be even healthier than mixed breeds randomly breeding without any attempt to eliminate harmful genetic mutations.
So far, no definitive and widely accepted study has proved either side right or wrong, even though people have strong opinions on both sides. Until real proof is found, your best bet is finding a dog that you like with a great temperament that a vet approves as healthy. Any dog can develop a serious disease later in life, so instead of worrying too much about that, just do your best to choose a healthy dog and practice good preventive healthcare. (For more about caring for your dog’s health, see Chapter Caring for Your Adopted Dog
To determine what stock a dog came from, you can also watch how the dog behaves. Territorial, reserved dogs probably have some guardian breed in them. Dogs with a tendency to move children in one direction or nip at heels tend to have some herding breed in them. Small dogs that bark a lot and take chasing squirrels seriously probably have a terrier background. Larger blocky friendly dogs that have floppy ears and smooth or feathery coats, love water, and pay close attention to birds probably have sporting-breed bloodlines. Very small dogs probably are at least part toy breed. (For more about each of these breed groups, see the “Adopting a Purebred Dog” section later in this chapter.)
Another thing to remember about mixed breeds is that mixed-breed puppies may change considerably when they grow up. Certain combinations (of one breed with another) can be misleading. A tiny white puppy can grow up to be a 100-pound grayish-black giant. Patterns can change and disappear. Coat texture can change. And size . . . well, that’s anybody’s guess. Some people say you can tell a puppy’s ultimate size by the size of his feet, and this works sometimes, but it isn’t failsafe. Of course, adopting an adult mixed-breed dog eliminates this guessing game, because after about a year, the dog has reached full size and grown in his adult coat. He probably won’t change much more.
Adopting a Purebred Dog
Maybe you’ve always dreamed of having a fleet-footed Saluki, or you really want to adopt a Schnauzer like the one your parents had when you were growing up, or maybe you just melt at the site of a tiny white Maltese with long silky fur. You don’t have to give up that dream just because you’re committed to adopting a dog that needs a new home. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 25 percent to 30 percent of the dogs in animal shelters are purebreds, and while some of these may not win any dog shows because of cosmetic “defects” like ears that are too short or spots in the wrong place, they can give you all the joy of a purebred along with the good feeling of rescuing a dog in need. Purebred rescue groups can make your search for the perfect purebred even easier by helping you to find the purebred you desire with a personality that best fits into your lifestyle. (See Chapter Rescue Me! All About Pet Rescue Groups
for more information on finding a purebred rescue group.)
Many people, however, decide on a certain breed without knowing what that particular breed needs. Just because you like the look of a breed doesn’t mean you’ll like the behavior of that breed, so before you adopt a purebred, find out what traits that breed is likely to have. For starters, the sections that follow describe some general guidelines to get you thinking seriously about whether the purebred of your dreams is really the dog you want.
All about breed groups
Every purebred dog falls broadly into one of several different groups or breed types that clue you in to a little something extra about the dog before you adopt it. If you see traits you really don’t want in a dog, don’t choose one from that group. Each of the groups listed in the sections that follow includes some examples of breeds that fit into each respective category, but not all of the hundreds of breeds are included. If you don’t see the breed that interests you, look it up on any of the following Web sites to see what breed group it falls under. These Web sites also provide you with much more detailed information about each of hundreds of individual breeds:
- American Kennel Club (www.akc.org): The oldest breed registry in the U.S., AKC recognizes 154 breeds in seven groups: Sporting, Working, Hounds, Terriers, Toys, Nonsporting, and Herding.
- United Kennel Club (www.ukcdogs.com): The UKC recognizes 308 breeds in eight groups: Companion dogs, Guardian dogs, Gun dogs, Herding dogs, Northern breeds, Scenthounds, Sighthounds and pariah dogs, and Terriers.
- Fédération Cynologique Internationale (www.fci.be): This international organization recognizes 332 breeds in ten groups: Sheepdog and Cattle Dogs; Terriers; Spitz and primitive types; Pointing Dogs; Companion and toy dogs; Pinscher and Schnauzer, Molossoid breeds, Swiss mountain and cattle dogs, and other Swiss breeds; Dachshunds; Scenthounds and related breeds; Retrievers, flushing dogs, and water dogs; and Sighthounds.
Good buddies: Companion dogs
Any dog can be a great companion, but dogs that fall under the category of companion breeds are the ones that have been bred for centuries, not to pull sleds or herd sheep or guard the house but specifically for the important job of being a companion to humans. Many are tiny lap dogs; some are slightly larger. Coat types range from the shortest Chihuahua coat to the longest, flowing Shih Tzu coat. These dogs have a special knack for being adorable. Some need a lot of grooming, but the people who enjoy companion breeds don’t mind. These dogs are perfect for people who want to lavish them with attention.
Companion dogs don’t do well when left alone all day, but if you work at home, they happily sit on your lap or at your feet for hours. Many of them bark a lot, and some are downright yappy. Just because they’re little and cute doesn’t mean that they don’t need obedience training. These little guys can develop great big Napoleonic complexes unless they’re taught the rules. They can be harder than larger breeds to housetrain, and prefer sitting and sleeping next to you, on the furniture and in your bed.
Examples of common companion dogs include Yorkshire Terriers, Poodles, Shih Tzu, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Pomeranians, Maltese, Lhasa Apsos, Miniature Pinschers, Bichon Frise, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Papillon, Pekingese, French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, Havanese, Boston Terriers, and Italian Greyhounds. See Figure 4-3 for an example of a Japanese Chin, a purebred companion dog you may find at a shelter.
Figure 4-3: Long-coated toy breeds often are abandoned because their owners can’t spend time grooming them properly, but with patience, they can become devoted companions.
Imposing Guardian breeds
These large, powerful dogs make excellent companion dogs and sometimes perform other tasks like pulling heavy loads, but they’ve served humans for thousands of years primarily as guardians. Long ago, when such barbaric practices were legal, these dogs also fought for sport. Exceptionally strong animals, they retain an instinct to protect their humans and their property. Because Guardian breeds are so strong, training and active socialization at an early age is absolutely crucial. Many of these breeds are big softies with their owners and friendly with friends . . . but evil-doers beware.
These dogs never should be left outside alone in the yard all day. They need frequent human interaction to make the most of their intelligence and plenty of exercise and owner interaction so they don’t become bored and destructive. Many Guardian breeds don’t bark much unless they have a good reason or they’re left alone too often. They also tend to have a good natural instinct about people. Early socialization helps refine this instinct so the dog becomes trustworthy around children, neighbors, and friends.
Examples of common Guardian breeds include Boxers, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Mastiffs, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Bullmastiffs, St. Bernard’s, Newfoundlands, and Great Pyrenees.
Active Sporting breeds
Sporting breeds, sometimes called gun dogs, include Retrievers, Pointers, Setters, and Spaniels. These dogs and their ancestors have hunted next to humans for thousands of years. They have a keen eye for birds and other game animals and strong instincts for finding them, flushing them out, and retrieving them after they’re shot. Some people describe seeing Retrievers or Pointers react for the first time to the sound of a gun as if it were a potent ancestral memory. Many sporting dogs know exactly what to do when hunting, even if they’ve never been trained to do it, and many are natural water Retrievers that love to swim and fetch things from the water.
Because they can hunt for hours, Sporting breeds are extremely active and need plenty of exercise. They can be the perfect pet for families that take them out to run, play, or compete in dog sports. Friendly and eager to learn, sporting dogs are happiest and healthiest when they can interact with people. They’re among the most popular choices for families because they enjoy children as active playmates. Early training teaches sporting dogs the rules while they’re still small enough to handle physically.
Examples of common Sporting breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers (see Figure 4-4), Cocker Spaniels, German Shorthaired Pointers, English Springer Spaniels, Weimaraners, Brittanys, Vizslas, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Irish Setters, and Portuguese Water Dogs.
Figure 4-4: Golden Retrievers are the second most popular purebred pet (after Labrador Retrievers), but many pet owners find they can’t handle the Golden’s high energy.
Born to run: Cold-hardy Northern breeds
Arctic dogs tend to have prick ears, curled tails that swoosh over their backs, heavy frost-proof coats, and strong feet made for running and padded with fur. These dogs have extreme drive and have served many purposes in frigid climates, pulling sleds, guarding, hunting, and warming the beds of their companions.
Northern breeds tend to be independent with a strong survival instinct and, in many cases, a strong instinct to run. They don’t tolerate warmer weather but love the cold often sitting for hours out in the snow. They’re clever escape artists, so they need secure fences and supervision and always need to wear identification. (All dogs should, for that matter, but it’s especially important for escapees.) Good owners for Northern breeds include active families, people who live in areas where these dogs can safely run, and people who want to get involved in fun sports like dog sledding, skijoring (dogs pulling crosscountry skiers), carting, and weight pulling. If you want a challenging dog that sees you as an equal but is willing to follow your rules if you earn his respect, this may be your group.
Examples of Northern breeds include Siberian Huskies, Chinese Shar-Pei, Alaskan Malamutes, Akitas, American Eskimos, Chow-Chows, Keeshonds, Norwegian Elkhounds, Samoyeds, and Shiba Inus.
Eye on the prize: Sighthounds
Sighthounds are among the oldest types of dogs. These long, lithe, speedy runners have supersharp eyesight and long were bred to spot prey from far away — even across dessert sands — and chase it down, fast. Greyhounds are among the original Sighthounds, but many other Sighthounds have evolved from greyhounds.
Sighthounds are an interesting combination of independent and sensitive. They won’t smother you or beg for affection, but they may sit nearby pining for your attention. Sighthounds need secure fencing and strong leashes, or they can dash into traffic after a squirrel or rabbit. When chasing something, they don’t notice anything else, thus few Sighthounds ever are trustworthy off leash no matter how well trained. They won’t even hear you yelling “Come!” Sighthounds are often depicted in art because of their slim curvy forms and beautiful lines.
Examples of common Sighthounds include Greyhounds, Afghan Hounds, Whippets, Salukis, Scottish Deerhounds, Irish Wolfhounds, Basenjis, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
The nose knows: Scenthounds
Scenthounds have an extreme sense of smell and can pick up the scent of a crumb of toast in the bottom of the kitchen wastebasket and go after it. Although typically mellow and affectionate, when they catch a scent, they become incredibly single-minded, and like the Sighthounds, won’t hear you calling them back away from traffic or other hazards if they are on a trail.
Scenthounds may bay, bark, or snuffle along the ground with no thought of glancing up and probably will chase small animals if they smell them. They’re incredibly food motivated and clever about scoring a plate of food from the counter when nobody’s looking. Pet owners must be careful not to let foodhounds become overweight. Scenthounds love competitive tracking events and are naturals at this sport.
Examples of common Scenthounds include Beagles, Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Bloodhounds, English and American Foxhounds, and all types of Coonhounds.
Feisty Terrier breeds
These bright, energetic little fellows like to bark, and do so loudly and often. They’ve been bred to maximize their vermin-catching potential so they get excited and motivated — and loud — when they spot a squirrel, a rabbit, a mole, or a mouse. They won’t be deterred unless you scoop them up and take them inside, but good luck catching these quick springy dogs. Terriers can try the patience of anyone who is sensitive to noise and high energy. Smart and independent problem-solvers, they need plenty of opportunities to race, chase, and play. They adore people and need (and even demand) a lot of attention. They can quickly morph into the role of lapdog, like to travel, and always are interested in what you’re doing.
Some terriers are enthusiastic chewers and diggers, and they all need secure fences to keep them from harm when chasing anything they perceive to be vermin. Don’t be surprised if they even bark at blowing leaves, dust bunnies, and any and all visitors, known or unknown. Terriers make excellent watchdogs, even if they are too small to be guard dogs. The group of Terriers mixed with Bulldogs have a bad reputation but can be among the sweetest and most well behaved of Terriers if they’re well socialized and trained. Terriers tend to be generally aggressive and need careful supervision around other dogs.
Examples of common terriers include West Highland White Terriers (Westies), Miniature Schnauzers, Scottish Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Fox Terriers, Rat Terriers, Jack Russell Terriers, Parson Russell Terriers, Airedale Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
Superfocused Herding breeds
This group has been herding sheep and cattle for thousands of years, so the instinct to herd is strong. These dogs may nip heels or use their bodies to push people and other dogs in the direction they think they should go. They are protective of children and worry that their “flock” may come to harm, so they may bark or physically pull children away from perceived threats. Many have dragged children from their roughhousing or from water with their teeth. Remember Lassie running for help when Timmy fell in the well? Classic Herding breed.
Herding breeds have intense focus and high energy. They need frequent exercise and complex mental stimulation to feel at ease. Many people feel overwhelmed by the Herding breed’s high activity and clever independence. These dogs can out-think many humans, so stay alert! Herding breeds love to compete in challenging, high-energy dog sports like agility and flyball, and in organized or actual work-related herding. Many instinctively know how to herd without training, but all Herding breeds need early obedience training to help channel their formidable intellect and high energy.
Examples of common Herding breeds include Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties), Border Collies, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, Old English Sheepdogs, and German Shepherd Dogs (some people categorize these as guardian dogs).
by Eve Adamson