The Selection Process

posted: 05/15/12
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Dog ownership is a long and serious commitment, so don't make a hasty decision.

You've prepared yourself for all the responsibility, cost and time that living with a dog will entail. The next logical step is deciding on the breed. Perhaps you're looking for a dog that will get along well with your children or other pets. Or maybe you would like a companion on long runs through the countryside. Your first consideration is both the most obvious and most important: Choose a dog whose space and activity needs match yours. Don't get a Great Dane, for instance, if you live in a small apartment. Trainability should also be a top priority, especially if your dog will be expected to interact with family, friends and strangers. If you have a problem with messy dog hair, consider a breed that sheds minimal fur, perhaps a bichon frise. Golden retrievers are great with kids, but need plenty of exercise. Chihuahuas, on the other hand, don't need much exercise but are generally too fragile for young children. Whatever your need or desire, there's a breed to suit you. Dog ownership is a long and serious commitment, so don't make a hasty decision.

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Purebred vs. Mixed Breed
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A Purebred?

Although any dog is in part an unknown quantity, purebred dogs are bred to preserve and pronounce physical and behavioral traits. Therefore, almost everything about them can be predetermined -- from their potential size and temperament to their life expectancy. While this is usually a good thing -- for instance, you're always guaranteed that thick, luxurious coat with a Shih Tzu, and you can be certain that your Doberman will be a great running companion -- it can also accentuate certain undesirable traits and increase a dog's tendency toward hereditary disease. If you respect the natural behavioral tendencies of your purebred, and make certain that the dog you choose doesn't come from a closely inbred litter, you should avoid most problems. A vet, animal shelter staff member, kennel club member, respected dog breeder, or good book can help you identify some of the more common problems with different breeds.

A Mixed Breed?

The mixed-breed dogs typically found at pounds or animal shelters are of uncertain or unknown parentage, but they usually tend to be intelligent, loving family pets. Of course, there's no real way of knowing how a mixed-breed puppy will shape up in terms of either appearance or temperament when he first comes home. The fate of crossbreed dogs -- the offspring of two different purebred dogs -- is usually easier to predict, but even this is no guarantee. Mixed-breeds are usually cheaper to buy than purebreds, and are more resistant to many of the health problems to which purebred dogs are prone. The more moderately sized mutt can usually sidestep the hip dysplasia that plagues many larger breeds such as Rottweilers. When selecting a mixed-breed dog, your best bet is to ask the shelter staff or litter owner if they have noted anything unusual about the behavior of your first choice. If so, move on the next candidate.

Don't choose a purebred dog just to follow a trend. Many mixed-breed dogs are in greater need of homes, since purebred dogs have a higher perceived status in today's society. No matter what your choice, make sure that the seller is reputable.

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Puppy vs. Adult
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Few people can resist the impish charm of a puppy. But don't discount adult dogs in your search for the perfect pet. While puppies are playful and cute, an adult dog presents fewer unknowns in terms of potential health and behavioral problems. Choosing a full-grown dog also means you bypass the considerable initial costs incurred with a puppy -- among them: spaying or neutering, initial vaccines and training classes. In addition, a family giving up their full-grown pet might supply the new owner with essentials such as a cage or crate, leashes, dishes, toys and blankets, which can add up to great savings. Of course, a puppy's personality may be easier to shape, and behavioral difficulties are easier to eliminate than with adult dogs.

A Puppy?

Look for one between the ages of 7 to 8 weeks old; any younger and he will likely have behavioral and social problems later. Once you bring the puppy home, however, you and your family take on the responsibilities of socialization previously held by his mother and littermates, so start bonding right away. This crucial period of socialization begins when a puppy is 3 weeks old and lasts until he is 3 months old, though he still needs attention afterward, of course.

Choose a puppy that is outgoing but not too dominant or aggressive, and you may want to avoid the runt of the litter. Runts may require more veterinary attention and training than do the other pups. Give your puppy a quick health check before you bring him home. Look for eyes that are clear and bright, pink gums, white teeth and a clean and shiny coat. Take note of a puppy with dandruff, ear discharge or running nose; while these may not be serious health problems in the long run, they will cost you some time and money to correct. Finally, check that he runs and walks well.

An Adult?

An adult dog comes with a known personality and medical history, provided he is not a stray or a shelter dog with questionable heritage. If you don't know much about the dog's past, do a few tests to determine whether he is right for you. Take him for a walk through a crowd and watch his reaction to adults, children and other dogs. Also try giving him a toy to see how easily he lets go. An aggressive dog might snarl, and a meek dog might cower at your approach.

All dogs and puppies have their own built-in requirements and rewards. To ensure that you'll have enough room, time and energy for your dog, you'll either need to do some creative guessing in the case of a puppy, or rely on the advice of the previous owner of an adult dog.

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If you have a large house, ample yard and plenty of hours to spare, a larger breed might fit well into your lifestyle. While smaller dogs generally cost less -- food and medications administered by body weight are less expensive, for example -- they don't always require less exercise. The huge Great Dane, for instance, needs relatively low-key exercise, while the high-energy miniature pinscher needs a rigorous workout. Nor is size a valid indication of a dog's temperament. The biggest of all breeds, the Irish wolfhound, is a quiet and gentle giant, while small terriers can be surprisingly aggressive and vocal.

Make sure that you choose a dog that fits into your life, whether you want a hardy, active playmate or a delicate lapdog.

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A wolf or wild canid pack relies on the males to hunt and protect, while the females raise the pups and keep domestic order. For this reason, male wolves and their domestic cousins are generally larger than the females. Contrary to popular belief, there is no gender difference for excitability, nervousness or defensive barking habits.


Characteristics of a Male Dog:

Male dogs are usually more aggressive, more apt to develop behavioral and territorial problems, and more prone to attempts at dominance among your family members. While male dogs are more active and playful, they may also be more destructive and unpredictable around children. Male dogs are more likely than females to mark their territory with urine and are ready to mate year-round. Male dogs that are sterilized, however, show a reduction in aggression, urine marking and "mounting" behavior; they are also less prone to prostate infections and testicular cancer.


Characteristics of a Female Dog:

Female dogs are easier to train and housebreak before puberty, and are the preferred choice for novice dog owners. Many people have female dogs spayed -- sterilized -- because of their heat cycle: While wolves and some other wild canids have just one cycle per year, domestic dogs have two or more, unless spayed. Sterilizing females not only prevents the cycles, and thus pregnancies, but also reduces the chances of developing mammary and uterine cancers, depending on the sterilization procedure.

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While the survival of wolves and canids in the wild depended in part on the density of their thick, double-layer coat in cold weather and the ability to shed and allow good air circulation through their coat in warmer times, these factors are almost moot as survival tactics in domestic dogs. Similarly, wild canids needed to blend into their surrounding to hunt prey and elude predators, but coat types and colors are now more related to aesthetics than survival.

While most dogs shed, the discarded hairs of some types of fur are more noticeable and omnipresent. Allergy sufferers might want to avoid the heavy-shedding German shepherd, for instance, and stick with a poodle -- this breed's fine hair is not shed, but instead must be trimmed by a groomer several times a year.

Along with their color, dogs' coats vary in length, type, texture and density, from the herding puli's long, dense, water-resistant double coat to the stiff, short, bristly fur of the Chinese shar-pei. Make sure you are aware of any special grooming needs of the breeds that interest you. Also take into account the expense of having a dog clipped regularly. Breeds such as the poodle, Airedale terrier and bichon frise need regular clipping. Call groomers in your area for sample prices and an idea of how often this needs to be done.

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More Than One?
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Thinking of bringing a second dog home? It may not be as easy as plunking the puppy down next to your loyal family dog. While dogs are social, they can have personality conflicts just as humans can. Introduce the dogs before you leave them alone.

The new dog will have to adapt to the pre-existing family group, so choose a dog carefully in terms of temperament, age and sex. Sterilized dogs of the same sex and calm disposition are fine, but choose a dog of the opposite sex if your first dog is somewhat high-strung or the least bit temperamental.

Your dog will probably adapt more easily to a puppy: He may take on a protective role and feel no threat to his established position in the family. But be aware that a non- or poorly socialized adult dog can influence a puppy's behavior and adversely affect his adjustment. A mischievous dog can also be a bad influence on an impressionable puppy. If you haven't yet learned to control your adult dog, you just may end up with two problem pooches instead of one.

Dogs and puppies who are well-socialized accept other dogs more quickly -- yet another reason to choose pooches that have had the necessary littermate bonding and socialization time when they were puppies. As a general rule, you should wait until your first dog is at least a year old and well-trained before introducing another. If both dogs require obedience training, do this separately.

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