If we are only selecting a dog based on it's appeal to our eye or our compassion for the abuse the dog may have suffered if it's a rescue, we might be feeling like we are doing the right thing but as time goes on the relationship between ourselves and our dogs is not where it should be, and worse still, we can destroy the dog's trust in humans and that can have serious implications. Whilst we can't predict the future and we can't control absolutely everything that happens that will determine the future behaviour of our dog, we can make decisions that will safeguard us and give us the very best chance of having the dog that whilst we might want, we probably need for our own peace of mind.
I'm going to share a few of the considerations I make before I select a puppy or dog, based on my lifestyle needs. The things that are important to me might not be so important to you and you may have your own ideas about what's important to you.
When I talk about these things it's based on my experience as a dog breeder, gun-dog trainer, being an explosives detection dog handler and my work in the field of canine training and behaviour. When I speak about certain dog breeds, I am fully aware that there are exceptions to the rules and that some dogs do not fit the typical breed characteristics but as a rule, and in my experience as a trainer who helps struggling dog owners, these are important considerations to be making if you want to do the best you can to make life less stressful for you and your dog.
Choosing a dog is often led by the heart and not the head. Dogs that look cute and fluffy as puppies often don't stay quite as cute when they grow up. Take a Japanese Akita for example, as puppies they can be big and fluffy and totally adorable. As adults they can become protective over their homes and families, guests are unwelcome by the dog and the family find themselves fearing for the person who arrives next at their door. That once cute and fluffy bundle has simply grown into the dog it was destined to be thanks to hundreds of years of breeding which have selected the dog for its guarding abilities.
It's often wise to consider what it is that you want from a dog. Again, I'm not saying that life doesn't happen and that sometimes a dog is going to come along unexpectedly and end up living with you but if you have the freedom to select a dog you can do a lot to help yourselves.
So what are the things that I would consider before selecting a dog? What things really matter to me?
High on the top of my list is a soft dog, one who loves cuddles and is less independent than some other breeds. Whilst a level of independence is important in terms of the work I do, that's something I consider in another area. I know that the toy dog breeds like Shih Tzu's have been bred to be lap dogs, but I do have a requirement for a dog to become addicted to training to be able to cope with the working demands I have of it. A Shih Tzu might well be my loyal home companion, but it isn't cut out for a full day's sniffing work. That's not to say they couldn't do it, but they aren't best designed for it.
The working ability of the dog is another of my top priorities. The dog I select needs to have plenty of energy, a desire to work, and needs to be fairly agile. I would be looking at working type breeds who are designed to work most of the day. I might consider a German Shepherd because they are a working breed and they have a strong desire to work but they don't fit the bill for two of my other requirements - longevity and size - which I will talk about in a moment. Also, in the UK's detection dog industry we are governed by rules about public perception of the dog breed. Would the public feel safe around a German Shephard dog - these dogs have historically had a reputation for being fierce and bitey because of the work they've done with the police and military, and for being used as guard dogs. In my role, a big proportion of my job is to help reassure the public. I'm going to be less approachable with a working-guarding breed.
Health of the dog. I am well-aware that we cannot control life and that some dogs may die young - they might be hit by a car, they might eat something toxic which causes long term health problems but I can do my best to prevent future health problems. I'm not going to stop there either, I'm going to enquire into the family health history too - is kidney disease common, joint problems, heart disease and so on. What about aggression? Underlying health problems can cause aggression so that might be a red flag too. I'm not going to select a bull-dog type breed because many of these animals are suffering from the start. The shape of their squished faces impacts on their ability to breathe and that can mean they can't exercise properly, they can't sleep properly and they can't be a dog properly. That just goes against my own ethical approach to dog ownership so those types of dogs are well out for me.
Longevity. I want my dog to have a longer lifespan. I get so attached to my dogs that I want them to be there for as long as possible. Going back to my German Shephard dog example, these dogs don't typically live for very long. Yes, some do, but generally they die at around 8-10 years old. For me, that's just not enough. I also want a dog who isn't going to be ageing for the last few years of it's life. I want my dog to be happy, healthy, dead. I don't want happy, healthy, and a long drawn out decline to death. In my experience, Springer Spaniels bounce around almost until their last moments and they have a reasonable life expectancy. It's not unheard of for these dogs to live for 12-14 years. But I am going to make every best effort to select from a family line of good joint history. Elbows and cruciate ligament injuries are common in Springers but I can do my best to select for good joint health.
I need a sociable dog. The relationship my dog has with my human friends and family is important, as is the relationship between the dogs of my household. In my experience, whilst a Jack Russell might fulfil my other needs, they aren't always great for multi dog households and neither are they always great around children. I don't have children so I'm not able to freely work on raising the dog to be good around kids and I don't want the risk of raising an ankle-snapper who will happily chase visiting children. In my experience, Springer Spaniels form strong emotional connections with humans and other dogs in the household. They have been bred to work with a human and to work around other dogs. Sociability is part of their genetic make-up. Obviously a lot will also depend on the socialisation the dog has whilst growing up but I can do my best to select for good qualities.
The size of the dog is a major consideration for me. Firstly, if the dog can't walk after an injury/operation and I have to carry it, at 5 feet 3 inches tall, I'm not really built to carry 45kg dogs. I can but it's not easy and I risk injuring myself and the dog. I also need to be able to lift the dog up high in my line of work, if it can't be carried on my shoulder with relative ease, then it's simply not compatible. I love Hungarian Vizslas and whilst many are around the 25kg mark and I could cope with that but I can't cope with their comparatively short lifespan. My ideal dog weighs around the 20kg mark (if smaller, then that's ok).
I know that some will deplore my expression of saying that I choose a dog for it's looks too but yes, certain dogs appeal to me more than others. I'm not attracted to a drooling Dog de Bordeaux. I mean they do have a certain appeal with those big broad heads and wrinkles but they aren't quite what I'd choose. I can't be attracted to bulldog type breeds or those considered brachycephalic (squished faces and noses) because I hate that they often suffer all because humans have selected them for that. My heart melts at long droopy ears that looks like hair as it frames the face and the eyes. I love a longer snout because I know that the more natural, the better for the dog's health. And I love what I consider beautiful markings - something that gives them uniqueness. For me, springers have unique markings. That's not say that I can't fall in love with any dog because I'm too soft not to but I do know what I find most appealing.
Some people ask why I choose a Springer over a Cocker Spaniel and my reasons for that are this, in my experience, Cockers are lovers of doing zoomies around the home when they have an excess of energy. For the most part, my dogs are exercised a lot and are worked hard so their welfare needs are met but on the occasion that life happens and I need to take time off from work, or I get sick and I can't get my dogs out as often as I'd like, I'm really not cool with a dog jumping all over my furniture while it tries to fulfil its own exercise needs. Yes some springers can do this too but it is much less likely. Most springers have a good on and off switch if their needs are ordinarily met. Cockers can be prone to over-stimulation and this can lead to some issues with their humans including some nips here and there and that doesn't fit with my sociability regarding family and friends who come into my house, especially the children who visit.
These considerations are all about damage limitation. It's easy to forget the breeding history, the dog's genetic make-up and the practical considerations when we have fallen in love but when things go wrong (which is exactly why the world is full of dog trainers), that love can quickly turn sour. Careful planning can dramatically reduce the stress that can come with poor selection.