By Mordecai Siegal
Pet Author, Writer & Consultant
“I want a woof-woof, Mommy. Pleeeeaasse. I promise to take care of him.”
“Honey, what do you say we get a dog? I saw the cutest one, with black button eyes, a tiny red tongue, and fur tossed like a hay stack. You know…something I can cuddle up with on the couch.”
Sound familiar? Dogs are everywhere and more in demand than ever, so it’s no surprise you’re considering one. Now that you’ve decided a dog is about to become a part of the family, you have to choose the right one. As this decision could last for around 15 years, it’s one you should not take lightly.
So, what is the right dog for you? Is it a clip-and-comb glamour hound from the show dog set? An eat-and-sleep couch potato? How about a fugitive from “The Brady Bunch” - hopping out of a sudsy tub and chasing the kids around the house as it lathers the living room?
The right dog is any dog that fits in comfortably with your lifestyle and makes you happy. People are often overly influenced by the canine flavor of the month. It’s easy to want to live with your own version of a movie or television star, but do not confuse reality with show business by prematurely falling in love with a Lassie, Snoopy, or Scooby-Doo. These breeds can frequently be quite different from the personalities they project on the screen. For example, Collies like Lassie can be territorial, sensitive, may chew destructively, and their famously loyal friendship is not given casually (though when they do, they are friends for life).
“The Woof Factors” of choosing REAL dogs are size, grooming requirements, training, and most important of all, behavior. One approach to determining a suitable dog for you is to learn more about the original purpose of a breed from its American Kennel Club group (www.akc.org). In many cases, the breeds within each AKC group have common skills and behaviors. General information regarding a breed’s temperament and personality can be understood by looking at the characteristics of the group as a whole.
Here is some essential information about the breeds within each of those groups:
The Sporting group includes breeds that have been developed over the centuries to assist humans in the hunt for game birds. These breeds include pointers, setters, retrievers, and spaniels. Although they are all hunting dogs, they vary in their method and style. Pointers (such as the German Shorthaired Pointer or German Wirehaired Pointer) have been bred to find and point to game. Setters (like the Irish Setter or English Setter) freeze in a low crouching position when they locate birds.. Spaniels (like the Clumber Spaniel or English Springer Spaniel) have been bred to find, flush, and retrieve wild birds, both waterfowl and upland birds. These smaller dogs have the ability to get into places that larger dogs cannot. Retrievers (such as the Flat-Coated Retriever or Golden Retriever) have been bred for sociability, trainability, running, jumping, swimming, stability of temperament, and decision-making.
The Hound group are the great hunters of the dog world and consist of breeds that generally hunt animals other than birds. Hounds are divided into two categories based on their method of hunting.
The sight hounds (like the Whippet or Greyhound) possess vision so keen that the slightest movement from a great distance attracts their attention. These hounds are extremely fast and enjoy running free for long distances.
The scent hounds are quite different in appearance, skills, and behavior. Scent hounds (like Basset Hounds, Beagles, or Bloodhounds) are subdued dogs until their enthusiasm is aroused by the call of the hunt. Most are short-legged and slower on the trail, but they’re stocky, powerfully built, and enjoy an active existence. Their method of hunting involves the ability to identify one scent from thousands and pursue it almost indefinitely. Once they lock on to a scent, they bark and howl and keep their nose to the trail until the quarry is found. These breeds are gentle, affectionate dogs that prefer the outdoors.
Some of the breeds in the Working group (such as the Bernese Mountain Dog or Rottweiler) are characterized by their inclination to protect herds, people, or property with vigor and enthusiasm. Other working group breeds are known for pulling carts and sleds or performing a variety of military tasks. They are intelligent, highly trainable and can be highly territorial. Behavior patterns of the working breeds are based on the drive to protect their territory and preserve their pack – which could be your family.
Originally, selective breeding of these dogs was inspired by the need to control rodents that were consuming cultivated gardens and cash crops. Some terriers, such as the Airedale, were effective hunters of the fox, badger, weasel, otter, and water rat. Most terriers (like the Norwich Terrier or Scottish Terrier) live as pets or show dogs rather than hunters. Breeds of this group are expected to be tenacious, stubborn, and single-minded enough to chase their prey across water and land, through brush, even into tunnels burrowed into the ground. Many of the terrier breeds have peppery temperaments and can be scrappy.
Although this group is composed of the smallest dogs, toy breeds are all dog nonetheless. These breeds (such as the Pug or Japanese Chin) behave exactly as large dogs do, just on a scaled-down measure. They have as many territorial tendencies as large breeds, bark at the slightest intrusion and may even attack intruders. Because of their small size they live with their human families on a more intimate basis and are often babied. Some toy breeds (like the Toy Fox Terrier or Toy Poodle) are miniaturized versions of their larger counterparts.
The common attribute of the herding breeds (like the Border Collie or Shetland Sheepdog) is the instinct and drive to do the work of a sheep herder or cattle drover. Herding behavior is rooted in an aspect of hunting as practiced by wolf or dog packs. Dogs with a high degree of this skill have been bred selectively in order to magnify this trait. These dogs are fast, agile, and are usually very responsive to training. They often make excellent watch dogs. They can be protective and reserved with strangers, almost to the point of shyness. If they don’t have sheep to herd, a Frisbee may be required. These dogs need outlets for their formidable energy and mental prowess.
Breeds of the Non-Sporting Group do not share a unifying set of characteristics. From Boston Terrier to Miniature and Standard Poodle to the Bulldog, each of these breeds has a unique history and divergent set of skills and behaviors. What they have in common is that they’re all companion animals worthy of living as a pet in your home.
Although the information presented here is of a general nature, hopefully it will help you start thinking about the right dog for you and your family. Additional research into any specific breed you’re considering before bringing it home is highly recommended. Happy hunting!
Mordecai Siegal is the author of well over 30 pet books including the best- sellers, “Good Dog, Bad Dog” and “The Cornell Book of Cats.” He writes a monthly pet column on www.goodnewsforpets.com. His latest book is “I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?” (Fireside/Simon & Schuster).