Dogs come in all shapes and sizes. As of now, there are 340 recognized breeds worldwide. But why so many? Because we use them for so many things – from sledding and water rescue to companionship. So how do you go about choosing the right breed for you and your family?
Too often, people look for the wrong qualities in dogs. A mismatch between dogs and their people ultimately puts the dog in a bad situation where their needs are ignored or they’re given up to a shelter.
Some dogs look like teddy bears while others can only be described as regal. Some dogs can outweigh your sixth grader while others can fit in your purse, but size and looks are no way to judge which kind of dog you should bring home. Instead, you should focus on getting to know as much as you can about the breed you’re interested in.
Breed Function and Instincts
Each breed has a natural repertoire of behaviors we usually refer to as instincts. No amount of training can override an instinct, so what you have is what you’ll get. In this way, you’ll want to be sure that you become as informed as you can with the breed’s intended function so that you can get a sense of what their instinctive behaviors will be.
Herding dogs will readily herd, water dogs will readily swim, companion dogs will readily cuddle and so on. This is not to say that dogs don’t have plenty of overlap in these abilities, but in most breeds, one of these abilities has been greatly magnified through artificial selection. There are also secondary instincts you should consider. A dog’s instinct to bark, for instance, is no accident. Barking (or not barking) serves an important role in the jobs each breed was created to do. Digging is another instinct many dogs have either been bred to do and in some breeds, it’s a form of self-preservation. An example of this is most vermin hunting dogs – including dachshunds and many terriers – were bred to dig into burrows to hunt down vermin and small animals, while huskies and chow chows will dig to find cooler dirt to lay in when it’s hot. Both barking and digging can be deal breakers that you’ll want to know about before making the decision to bring one of these breeds home.
Instinct Specific Stimulation
Knowing what instincts have been bred into your dog will not only help you decide if they are a fit for your lifestyle but will also help you understand what kind of stimulation they’ll need. Every dog needs stimulation to ensure mental and emotional well-being. Each breed will need function specific games and activities. For instance, herding dogs who are trained to execute herding commands will excel in a home where they are taught a wide range of commands and signals. A scent hound will do best in a home where they are given the opportunity to track, even if it’s just finding your kindergartener’s lost left shoe. Cart and sledding dogs will be happiest if given the opportunity to pull, even if it’s just their owner on a pair of roller blades.
No dog is born perfectly able to complete these tasks, instinct or not. You’ll still need to train them to focus on commands, to track what you want them to track, and to keep the cart on the path. When choosing a dog breed that’s right for you, you’ll not only need to understand what their breed function is but also if you are willing and able to stimulate them properly.
Why this is so important
Just like people, dogs don’t do well when they aren’t given what they need. Problem behaviors like digging and barking as well as emotional problems like depression and anxiety can all stem from not getting proper exercise and mental stimulation. It will be 100% your responsibility as the owner to give them stimulation and for many dogs, it won’t be as easy as opening the back door to a fenced in yard, no matter how big.
A note on breeders
If you are looking to buy from a breeder always be sure that you can meet the parents. Whatever the parent’s personalities and tendencies are, your puppy’s will likely be very similar. Don’t take their word for it! MEET THE PARENTS! A good breeder will be more than happy to facilitate this. It also doesn’t matter if the breeder has never hunted or herded anything, the dogs they breed will still have their breed specific instincts.
It’s also important to note that every dog is different and the threshold necessary to act on a particular instinct can be higher or lower, even in the same breed. An example of this is for some rat terriers all they need is the smell of a rat to start the hunt and for others, they need to actually see the rat. Both have the instinct to hunt rats, they just need different levels of exposure to rats to actually hunt them.
Rescued Mixed Breeds
Currently, the ASPCA and Humane Society are trying to get people away from the idea of mixed breeds because they don’t want there to be too much expectation that goes into how the dog looks or acts. I think that some basic knowledge about the dog’s mix could be helpful. For instance, my dog Gremlin is a Jack Russel Terrier and French Bulldog mix. Most of his personality is from the Jack Russel side. He’s feisty, stubborn, and very smart. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his bulldog moments. He’s incredibly lazy and finds every little disturbance to his naps irritating.
It can be overwhelming to look into each and every breed each dog is mixed with at your local shelter or on Petfinder. Instead, a good strategy is to consider which breeds you’re interested in based on my list above and understand a mixed breed will often have some aspects of both. In these cases, you should expect to see the most dominate traits that have been bred into each breed to come out only in situations that call for it.
Your pointing mix may only ever point on hikes when a squirrel runs by and your herding mix may only try to herd the ducks at the park. Since you can’t know what aspects will make it into your mixed breed, you should be ready and willing to handle any mix of instincts at any intensity. In that way, I recommend adopting an adult since you’ll have a much better understanding of what to expect after getting to know them.
I hope that whatever dog you bring home that you are able to give each other years of love and companionship!