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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Selecting a Dog

By John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD ; Susan Aiello, DVM, ELS

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Choosing the dog that is right for you and your family is very important. The large variety of breeds means that dogs come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and have a range of temperaments. Many dog breeds have been developed for specific purposes and behaviors. A mismatch can result in unnecessary stress and lead to behavioral problems, which can be difficult to correct.

Size, Activity, and Temperament

Size, activity level, temperament, and breed characteristics (including hair coat) should be considered in choosing a dog. Your dog will live with you for many years, so you must consider how these factors will best fit your lifestyle and situation. For example, large dogs (such as retrievers) and very active dogs (Jack Russell Terriers, for example) need room to run and play. These active dogs do better when they have access to a fenced yard for regular exercise and may not be the best choice for a city dweller who lives in a small apartment. Some dogs, such as Border Collies, appear to have a need to work (for example, herd), or they often become bored and out of sorts. Keep in mind that size is not always a good indicator of activity level. Many small dogs require significant amounts of exercise and attention, while some large breeds (Newfoundlands are a good example) can be relatively inactive when mature. Dogs with high activity levels may not be a good choice for someone whose mobility is limited. Smaller, active dogs (such as small poodles or terriers) may not be able to tolerate the rough play of young children.

One critically important consideration is whether the dog will be good with children or infants. Some breeds are generally better with children than others, but most dogs that are raised with children see them as just another family member. In these situations, the dog should be trained to respond properly to all members of the family. Adult dogs that are accustomed to a household without children may resent the attention given to a new child, resulting in behavioral problems such as aggression or soiling in the house. In any event, the early interactions when children are introduced into a household with dogs, and vice versa, should be closely monitored. Children or infants should never be left unsupervised with a dog.

Climate

When choosing a dog, it makes sense to consider regional climate. Heavy-coated breeds will have difficulty staying cool in hot southern climates, while thin, short-haired breeds may have problems in extremely cold winter temperatures. Small dogs that stay inside most of the time can generally get along fine in any region, provided their trips outdoors in potentially dangerous weather conditions are kept short.

Age

Selecting either a puppy or an adult dog has advantages and disadvantages. Puppies raised with your family usually integrate well into your environment, and a strong bond usually forms naturally. However, the adult size and activity level of a mixed-breed puppy can be difficult to predict. All puppies have a lot of energy and require a great deal of attention and supervision, especially during the early, housetraining period. Puppies also require a greater initial investment in veterinary care (see Puppy Care). On the other hand, adult dogs may have some initial difficulty adapting to your family or lifestyle and many need additional time and attention to adjust to their new environment. If you are able to obtain a medical and behavioral history from the previous owner or a shelter, this can be invaluable in assessing whether a particular dog is right for you.

Finding the Right Dog

Dogs can be obtained from a variety of sources (see Potential Sources for Obtaining a Pet Dog). Again, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with each. For example, many pet shops obtain puppies from reputable kennels and shelters, while others purchase them from factory-like “puppy mills,” which raise dogs of questionable quality often under extremely poor conditions. If you want a purebred dog, you should search for registered breeders in your area. Shelters are often a good source of mixed-breed puppies, and purebred dogs are also often available. Regardless of the source, your best approach to selecting a pet is to research the source, ask questions, and carefully observe both the dog and its environment.

Ask Questions

Checking out the source of your dog before you acquire it is important. If the source is a friend, neighbor, or ad in the paper, ask to see the dog’s parents (if possible). Ask about the health history, including any illness, vaccinations, heartworm preventive, and whether the dog has been spayed or neutered. Ask for and check references for breeders and pet shops. Ask why an animal is up for adoption and if it has any known medical or behavioral problems. If you are getting a purebred dog, ask if the parents have been tested for, and found free of, diseases common to the breed.

Watch Closely

Keep your eyes open when visiting the kennel, pet shop, or shelter. It is worthwhile visiting before you are ready to make your selection so that you can check things over without the distraction of falling in love with a new pet. Is the facility clean and well organized? Do the dogs look happy, or scared and timid? Do the dogs look healthy, or thin and sickly? Is the temperature of the building comfortable, with fresh water available to all animals? Many problems can also be “sniffed out.” Foul odors or dank, humid air suggest a building that is dirty or poorly ventilated. A clean kennel should smell slightly of disinfectant, not strongly of urine or feces. The puppies themselves should not smell of urine or feces.

Judging the Physical and Social Health of a New Dog

Positive Attributes

Negative Attributes

  • Active, friendly, sociable, curious

  • Healthy weight

  • Clean, shiny coat free of mats, sores, or fleas

  • Clean ears and eyes

  • History of vaccination and veterinary care

  • History of eating a high-quality dog food

  • Timid or aggressive (snarls, backs away, snaps)

  • Thin or scrawny, with ribs or hip bones sticking out (Note: A pot belly on a thin puppy may be a sign of worms, a very common and easily treatable condition.)

  • Dirty coat stained with urine or feces

  • Fleas or “flea dirt” (reddish brown granules or flecks, commonly seen over the rump)

  • Red, inflamed, crusty, or painful ears

  • Red spots or sores on the skin

  • Signs of respiratory problems (for example, a cough or runny eyes or nose)

  • History of illness (vomiting, diarrhea, or similar signs)

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