Choosing the right breed for your family
Updated: Apr 24
Let’s talk about breed selection, but before we begin, a friendly reminder about the goals and objectives of the advice that follows.
My mission here (and everywhere) is to teach you how to make owning a dog as simple and seamless as possible. That may mean I say some things you don’t like or disagree with. Don’t take it personally, please.
OK, with that out of the way, on to the topic at hand. You’ve decided to add a dog to your family. Congratulations! Now, what kind of dog would fit best? Note - I said fit best, not “what kind of dog you want”. There are a few breeds I’d love to own that wouldn’t fit well in my lifestyle.
I’d love to own a Belgian Malinois, but it wouldn’t be a good fit, so I don’t own one.
Here’s a process you’ll find helpful.
Step 1 - Clear your mind of all your impractical notions. Having a particular breed as a kid isn’t a good reason to blindly select that same breed now. Your situation is probably different than it was then. Getting the latest and greatest movie dog - probably a mistake. Getting a dog to protect your family - unless you’re up for spending $50,000 is probably a mistake. The list goes on. Don’t make a quick decision.
You need to make an honest assessment of your lifestyle and how a given breed will fit, or not fit, as the case may be. If you want to keep things simple, the breed/dog has to fit you, not the other way around.
Step 2 - HONESTLY evaluate yourself and your family. A dog won’t cause you to take up running if you don’t already run, so don’t get a breed that doesn’t fit your current state of being. Important considerations are:
Are you active or sedentary?
Do you enjoy outdoor activities year ‘round?
Do you have kids? If so, what age and how well do they (be honest) listen?
Are you at an age where you’re going to be able to walk a dog daily for the next 10-12 years?
Those questions can be answered any number of ways as long as you're honest, and you can still have a dog. Remember, we’re talking breed and emphasizing simplicity here.
Step 3 - Think about your goals for the dog.
Goals that work for most people:
Goals that fail more times than not:
Home/family protection (without serious training)
Playmate for the kids, and or teaching kids responsibility
Most people reading this should be looking for a simple companion dog, who’s happy tail and slobbery kisses bring them joy. If you’re trying to fill a hole in your life or heart - get counseling, not a dog. If you just love having a dog around - great!
Hunting dogs and service dogs obviously require extensive, specialized training. I put this in the “work” list because most people with those goals have an idea what’s required before they begin. Some don’t, and they fail, but most seem to understand the commitment. If you’re not sure what it will take, contact a trainer who’s put many of those dogs into service and ask them.
Getting a dog for family/home protection, unless you’re going to buy a fully trained protection dog, usually leads to a bad breed choice. Many, many people get away with this one, thinking the German shepherd they bought would bite someone, when there’s literally no way it would, except possibly out of fear. Meanwhile, they have to deal with all the complications that come with owning what I call an “advanced” breed. Meaning, one that you need some serious specialized knowledge and experience to own successfully.
Dogs “for the kids” are usually a bad idea, but there is a caveat. You can get a dog for the kids as long as you realize it will still be your responsibility to train, care for and manage the animal. You should also be ready and willing to teach your kids how to interact properly and safely with the dog. If you have little ones, or impulse control challenges, then a dog may not be for you, regardless of breed. I guess the bottom line is - don’t get a dog for the kids if you don’t want one yourself.
Step 4 - research the historical usage and temperament traits of various breeds
Historical usage is extremely important. All dog breeds were created with a purpose. That means, for decades, if not centuries, they have been selectively bred to do a job. You’re probably not getting a dog with that job in mind, but it’s likely that barring an extremely lazy example, you’re going to get a dog that wants to do the job they were originally bred to do.
Jack Russell terriers were bred to hunt vermin in holes. Don’t be surprised if your dog digs in the yard chasing moles or other underground critters.
Pitbull terriers were bred to fight other dogs (not protect people).
Bulldogs were meant to bring down a bull.
Hounds were bred to be, well, hounds. They don’t require a lot of brains, just a great nose and a lot of running stamina.
German Shepherds are herding dogs, as the name suggests. Don’t be surprised to see yours chasing small children nipping at their heels to direct them.
Labrador retrievers were bred to retrieve, but more importantly - to be cooperative with humans. That’s why they are #1 on the AKC breed list and #2,790 on my training list. They’re generally easy for people to live with.
Point is - if you're not getting the dog to perform it’s historical purpose, be careful. You can always get some or a lot of their ancestors' behavior. If that behavior is at odds with your lifestyle or difficult to control, you could easily make a horrible breed choice.
Temperament varies from dog to dog, but it is another thing that has been part of breeding selections from the time there were breeding selections.
Finding a summary of descriptors is pretty easy. Just google “x breed temperament” and you’ll get a fairly concise list.
Descriptors you want to see:
Descriptors you don’t want to see (if you want to keep things simple):
Energetic (unless you have a lot of time to devote to them)
Another reminder - we’re talking about keeping things simple for the average family. If you want/need a livestock guardian, things on the bad list would be good, but you’re not the average family. You may want a Kuvasz or Anatolean Shepherd, and it may be appropriate for your situation and experience level. The average Mom and Dad with 2.1 kids doesn’t need one.
Step 5 - Find some qualified resources in your area and talk to them in person. These should be veterinarians, groomers and trainers. People who handle the good, bad and ugly of dogs on a daily basis.Talk to them about what you should expect with a given breed (and sex) of dog. Take their advice seriously. They know what they see on a daily basis. Talk with more than one to weed out anyone who’s an enthusiast of a particular breed and therefore, biased.
In summary, if you want things to be simple - you need a breed that fits your lifestyle. I’m not going to make a bunch of suggestions. I just want you to go through the process.
Forget your preconceived notion of what you want.
Assess your personal habits and lifestyle
Set some good goals for your new dog
Research breed history and traits
Check your selection against what local area pros think
And you usually can’t go wrong with a Labrador Retriever. Just sayin’