Choosing a dog breed: How to pick the perfect puppy for you
If you’re ready to welcome a dog into your life—whether they’re a brand-new puppy or a dog that’s already full grown—a major hang-up can be choosing a dog breed that’s right for you.
Choosing a dog breed and, just as importantly, an individual dog is a bit like looking for a life partner. You have a general sense of what traits you love, loathe, and are willing to tolerate, and these traits shape your search and ultimately who you decide to spend your time with.
In this post we’ll share a veterinarian’s perspective on the seven main types of breeds (plus a bonus 8th) to put you one step closer to your dream dog.
Questions to ask yourself before choosing a dog breed
This one’s easier said than done, but the following three questions should help you along:
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- What am I looking for in a dog? This answer comes as much from the traits you’re drawn to in dogs as from a bit of self-reflection and lifestyle evaluation. Let’s say you’re someone who loves to run. Are you in search of a dog that can keep pace with you… or a dog that will be waiting for you at home on the couch for a post-run cuddle? From purse-friendly pups to gentle giants, agreeable to opinionated, and workhorse to couch potatoes, choosing a dog breed that’s best for you is all about matching personalities and preferences.
- How much time am I wanting (or willing) to spend on training, grooming, and exercise time is a luxury. For some, it’s a luxury in short supply. Training, grooming, and exercise are three areas where the dog breed you choose often dictates how much time you’ll need to commit. For example, some dogs with extremely thick coats require daily grooming to prevent stubborn knots and matts, while others are far lower maintenance. Likewise, a dog breed predisposed to stubbornness means you’ll likely have to put in overtime to train them away from bad habits.
- What health issues can I deal with (financially and otherwise)? We love our dogs through thick and thin, but certain breeds are more prone to health conditions like arthritis. Granted, there may be unexpected (and unwelcome) surprises along the way, but having a general understanding of what kinds of problems may crop off over your dog’s lifespan can help you determine if it’s within your means to provide the support they need.
Give your local veterinary clinic a call and ask to speak with a vet professional once you’ve shortlisted your preferred breeds. They’d be happy to walk you through health and other predispositions.
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Things to consider when choosing a dog breed
In addition to the three questions above, there are a number of more general considerations to factor in to your decision-making process:
- Allergies: If you know you’re allergic to dogs, you’re likely going to have to narrow your search. There are a number of dog breeds considered hypoallergenic, but remember: this doesn’t mean these breeds don’t produce allergens… only that people tend to display fewer or no allergy symptoms (due to a lack of shedding, for example).
- Sex: Generally speaking, male dogs tend to be larger in size than female dogs. If space is an issue for you, you may want to consider whether you adopt a boy or a girl.
- Child friendliness: If you have children in your home (or you’re planning for children in the future), keep this in mind as you research dog breeds. For example, herding breeds (more on this in a minute) may act on the instinct that children need to be herded, while others may find children’s erratic behaviours scary.
- Dog friendliness: If you already have or intend to have more than one dog in the house, make sure to select a breed that likes being with other dogs. Unfortunately, even docile, dog-tolerant breeds can still find other dogs off-putting. This is where vigilance and training come in.
- Other pet friendliness: This one is especially important if you have small pets in the house (cats, rabbits, birds, and the like). Breeds bred for hunting or herding can sometimes be problematic when there are other small mammals in the home.
With these considerations in mind and answers in tow, you can now conduct a more focused search and choose a dog breed that’s best for you, your family, and your lifestyle.
How many dog breeds are there?
How many dog breeds are there to choose from? The Canadian Kennel Club (or CKC) recognizes 187 dog breeds divided into 7 categories: herding, hounds, non-sporting, sporting, terrier, toy, and working dogs.
These categories each contain dozens of breeds that tend to share a set of common characteristics but that all have their own quirks, too. Just as there are in-group similarities, there are also between-group similarities: for example, herding, hounds, sporting, terrier, and working dogs tend to have generalizable personality traits (e.g., loyalty, protectiveness) but range in characteristics like size and coat type.
We’ve summarized these 7 categories to help you decide which group(s) of dogs feel like a potential fit for you:
- Herding dogs: Herding dogs are whip smart; they’ve been bred to work hard and remain devoted to their humans. Like the name suggests, this category of dogs excels at keeping animals—and sometimes people—together in a group.
- A herding dog may be for you if… you are physically active and find joy in mental interaction with dogs (things like teaching new tricks and commands).
- Hounds: This category can be further divided into sighthounds (dogs who hunt by sight) and scent hounds (dogs who hunt by smell). They tend to be highly perceptive, driven, and actively follow their instincts to get a job done—sometimes to a fault.
- A hound may be for you if… you are equal parts patient, physically active, and up for a challenge. Because hounds are so inclined to follow their nose (literally), it may take longer for them to heed certain commands. Trust us, though—they’re worth it.
- Terriers: Terriers are feisty, brave dogs that have been bred to dig and to catch small game. What they lack in size, they more than make up for in physical and mental agility.
- A terrier may be for you if… you like spending time outside but prefer a more portable breed (and one with a little spice).
- Working dogs: Dogs under this category have been bred for a variety of jobs, from pulling carts and sleds (draft dogs) to guardian work, ship work, and even rescue work. Not surprisingly, this variety means there’s no set point for size, energy, and exercise requirements, but generally speaking, working dogs are agreeable, easy to train, and treat their teammates (that’s you!) with respect.
- A working dog may be for you if… you’re in the market for a loyal, hard-working companion. We recommend researching the range of working dog breeds, from St. Bernards to Portuguese Water Dogs, to find one whose natural disposition most closely matches yours.
- Sporting dogs: For centuries this category of dogs have been bred to find and retrieve game birds. The Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are two of the most popular breeds in this category, and they are well known and loved for their willingness to please.
- A sporting dog may be for you if… you love to teach and are physically active. Sporting dogs are excellent learners and even better retrievers, so if you’re into daily games of fetch in the backyard or have considered obedience competitions, you two will get along just fine.
The final two categories (non-sporting and toy) are a bit more complex. Both contain breeds that vary in size, personality, and coat type, so it can be tough to sum them up in just a few sentences.
- Toy breeds: Bred to be compact companions, the biggest differentiator in this dog breed category is size. However, they do share characteristics from some of the other categories. For example, the Toy Fox Terrier is a miniature version of the Fox Terrier, and while it differs in size its hunting abilities are virtually identical to its full-sized counterpart.
- A toy breed may be for you if… you crave companionship but don’t have the time for or interest in hour long daily walks. Some toy breeds, such as the Pug and Havanese, may even turn their nose at the suggestion of time spent outside.
- Non-sporting breeds: Breeds within this category aren’t quite small enough to be considered toy-sized and are no longer bred with a designated job in mind (unless you count companionship, in which case non-sporting breeds take the medium- to large-sized cake). Did you know the Standard Poodle was originally bred for duck hunting? Nowadays, they’re still a smart, active breed, but their function has mostly changed.
- A non-sporting breed may be for you if… you’re drawn towards bigger dogs but prefer a dog that’s decidedly more laid back.
In some cases, the breed you’ve had your heart set on may not be a recognized CKC breed. Cause for concern? Not really. Newer breeds (the American Bully, for example) will generally have an associated founding breed (in this case, the American Pitbull Terrier) you can defer to for breed-specific information.
But what about mutts?
EXPERT TIP: If your heart is set on a purebred and you’re reaching out to a breeder, make sure to ask about what kinds of testing they do, if they line breed, and what they look for in the dogs they breed. Linebreeding is a strategy used by some dog breeders to enhance what are thought to be “good” qualities in a particular breed. This is a mild form of inbreeding that should only be carried out by professionals who know their lines extremely well and have a clear goal in mind.
So far, everything we’ve discussed largely assumes you’re searching for a single breed dog (also known as a purebred). Because purebred dogs have set traits achieved through inbreeding, they present more consistently which can make finding the right fit a bit easier for you.
Let’s not overlook an all-important eighth category: mixed breeds (sometimes lovingly referred to as “mutts”). If you’re open to a mixed breed, there are benefits and drawbacks.
On the plus side, many of the genetic medical conditions linked to purebred dogs don’t get passed on to mixed breeds. Why? Because they tend to be recessive conditions that get “washed out” in the gene pool.
On the other hand, a mixed breed can be a bit of a mixed bag in that you can’t know for certain what dominant traits will emerge. This includes coat type, activity levels, personality, size, and so on. Don’t let the unknowns discourage you, though! There’s plenty you can do with and for your dog to ensure a happy, healthy, well-adjusted life together.
No matter which breed (or breeds) you decide on, you’re in for a lifetime of love.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO