Choosing the right Dog

There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ dog – they all require exercise, enrichment, grooming etc, but there are some dogs that may be more suitable for your lifestyle, than others. Because a great many problems have their roots in the mismatch between a breed’s original function and our expectations as pet owners, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide some general information, using the recognised groups as a starting point for what the average pet owner should take into account when choosing a companion animal.

The following are generalisations and there are always exceptions to every rule, so always research a particular breed in more detail and try to understand how the original function of these breeds will have a strong influence on their behaviour.

When you think about it, it’s incredible how varied the genome is; that you can have the smallest Chihuahua to the biggest Great Dane, all from the original wolf ancestor.

The Kennel Club currently recognises 215 breeds and these 215 are placed into 7 categories; gundog, hound, pastoral, terrier, toy, utility and working. These breed categories are the labels given to describe their original functions.

So, if we start with gundogs: this includes spaniels, Pointers, Labradors and Setters etc – all with various functions.

Potential pet owners who are interested in dogs from this group need to know up-front that breeds in this group are generally athletic and in some cases, able to run all day. Some are very keen around water and many are keen to chase prey animals. Many of the breeds in this group, especially those from working lines, have huge exercise and mental stimulation requirements and if this is not met, problems may well follow.

On the plus side, they tend to be outgoing, liking all people, not just family members, making them easy to socialise.

Hounds were originally used for hunting either by scent or by sight. The scent hounds include the Beagle and Bloodhound and the sighthounds, such breeds as the Whippet and Greyhound. The scenthounds were bred to follow a scent until an animal was located, whereupon they would bay until the hunter caught up. These scenthounds could be many miles ahead of the hunter and so tend to be happy to be away from and independent of humans.

The sighthounds on the other hand, were bred to run down, catch and kill prey items and are very good at it.

As pet owners, we need to know that the scenthounds are going to be very into scent and when they find an irresistible one, they are likely to take off and do their own thing. If they are from the sighthound group, they are going to be keen to run down and kill small animals, which includes cats!

The pastoral group consists of herding dogs that are associated with working cattle and sheep, etc. Breeds such as the Australian Cattle Dog, Border Collie, Malinios and German Shepherd are but a few included in this group.

Many of the dogs in this group are easy to motivate and have a need to be busy, working from the moment they wake to the moment they sleep, they will literally run all day. This makes them popular with dog trainers and people who participate in dog sports, but for pet owners, this could be a disaster. They can be sensitive and spooky, weary of strangers, prone to sound sensitivity, have compulsions and chase and nip at moving objects.

The terriers are dogs originally bred and used for hunting and killing vermin. This hardy collection of dogs were selectively bred to be extremely brave and tough, and to pursue foxes, badgers and rats (to name but a few) both above and below ground.

Interestingly, when I talk with owners in class, they are generally well aware of the breed traits to be pugnacious, scrappy, vocal and quick to kill small animals. Jokingly, I have heard these traits described as Westietude and terrier-ists.

The toy breeds are small companion or lap dogs, although some have been placed into this category simply due to their size. They should have friendly personalities and love attention from people.

Owners should know that these breeds have a reputation for being barky, can be difficult to house-train, may be fussy eaters and may be very keen to guard their owner’s laps. This may be the case, but it could also be that due to the breed’s small size, their owners are less diligent about house-training and these breeds do not need very much food, also due to their small size.

The utility group consists of miscellaneous breeds of dog mainly of a non-sporting origin, including the Bulldog, Dalmatian and Poodle. The name ‘utility’ essentially means ‘fitness for a purpose’ and this group consists of an extremely mixed and varied bunch, most breeds having been selectively bred to perform a specific function, not included in the sporting and working categories.

From a behaviour point of view, because this is such a varied bunch, it’s much harder to generalise based on the group and so you should take each breed by breed. The group includes Chows, Akitas, Shiba Inu’s and other Asian breeds. Pet owners need to know about these breeds’ propensity to a variety of aggression types.

The working breeds were selectively bred to become guards, sled, draught and search and rescue dogs, it includes Mastiffs, Great Danes and St Bernards.

What this means for pet owners is that the guardian breeds are generally great with family and familiar people, but not so good with strangers and so need lots and lots of socialisation, unfortunately even with their best efforts, their dog may become reactive to strangers in the future.

The draught and sled dogs have been bred to pull and in some cases, like huskies, they are going to be wanting to ‘go, go, go!’ and like a lot of exercise.

The rescue breeds like Newfoundland, other than sheer size and cost to keep, do not generally pose too many problems for pet owners.

Finally, with the current trend of cross-breeding dogs with catchy and attractive names such as ‘puggles’, ‘poo’s’ and ‘doodles’, trying to find information on what to expect in the way of size, health, shape, exercise and temperament may prove a little tougher!


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