Getting a New Dog? Remember, a Dog Is More Than a Pretty Face

Research the breed, or you'll spend time managing the dog instead of living your life.


I feel like I am a pretty darned good dog trainer. I can train your dog to walk nicely on a leash, load and unload the laundry, play the piano, or clean up his toys with little difficulty. (Okay, kidding, mostly.) But what I can’t train is one of the things clients most frequently ask me for -– to give them a different dog. Despite my training skills, I cannot:

  • Teach a nine-month-old German Shepherd to act like a 15-year-old Basset Hound.
  • Teach an eight-week-old puppy to be happy with and not urinate or defecate in her enclosure when left alone for 8 to 12 hours per day.
  • Teach a 2-year-old Border Collie to love a couch-potato lifestyle.

Lured by a pretty face, a prospective pet owner may well be tempted by charisma alone, without consideration for the real needs and temperamental trait of the dog they welcome home. When you choose to purchase or adopt a dog, you are investing in your family. Dogs are real, living creatures with needs, preferences, and passions.

Did you know that many dog trainers will offer free or discounted services to families looking to obtain a new dog? Trainers do this because they know that finding the right match between dog and owner is often the difference between keeping a dog in a home for a lifetime vs. keeping the dog in the home until he eats the couch or the neighbor and is then euthanized or relinquished to a shelter (where he is all too frequently later euthanized).

My job would be a lot easier if people would choose a dog based on how he’d fit into their family, not on how he looks. I might see these clients for one six-week course on manners with an occasional follow-up session. What happens more frequently is that owners are seduced by a beautiful cute face and are often left with a dog match that leaves both they and the dog sad, miserable, and frustrated. Most pet owners want a dog that will easily adjust to their family life. They are not looking for a part-time job managing the dog.

Basically, if you want “easy,” don’t get a dog that’s “hard!”

Not long ago, a photo of a Tibetan Mastiff was posted on a popular Facebook site directed toward dog lovers. As canine aficionados, we can all look at that picture and marvel at the beauty of such a powerful animal –- a dog that, in pictures, seems to be simultaneously majestic and also cuter than a teddy bear.

Many people commented, saying things like, “He’s so gorgeous! I’d love to have one just like him someday!” One of these people had lived for most of her life with very friendly toy-breed dogs. I think that a dog bred for guarding and suspicion of strangers, weighing more than 10 times her former breed of choice, would be a disastrous choice for this person.

I’ve met the most amazing pet dogs that, honestly, weren’t much to look at. On the other hand, some of the most challenging dogs I know behaviorally are quite stunning. I know he’s cute, but do you really want to spend the next 10 or 15 years managing a dog that may never like your other dog, your cat, your kids, or your husband?

Most pet owners want a pet, not a project. Too often, the dog who will be a good fit in your life is ignored. Sometimes this is even the one that greets you happily with a wagging tail, as the one who cowers in the back of his crate, tail tucked between legs, is taken home out of pity. Don’t pick the dog that needs a lot of work, please, unless you are able to do that work with him. That means dedicating time, getting guidance from a professional when needed, and adjusting your lifestyle to the needs of your dog.

While a knowledgeable trainer can guide you, keep the following in mind when getting a dog:

  • In general, “extremes” are more expensive to purchase and maintain — extremely large or tiny dogs often have more medical issues than their more moderately-sized canine counterparts. Big dogs often cost more than little dogs. Bracycephalic dogs, like Bulldogs and Pugs, are more likely to have medical issues.
  • Training for behavior problems (separation anxiety, dog or people aggression, and so on) is lot more expensive than training for good manners.
  • Don’t cram square pegs into round holes. If you have a baby, your ideal dog should be calm and well-socialized to children. If you have cats, don’t select a dog who thinks killing them is the equivalent of a trip to Doggy Disneyland. Want to do therapy work at a local children’s hospital? Please don’t expect your trainer to help you prep a dog for that task if she has an established history of growling, barking, lunging, or snapping at kids. Don’t like grooming? Please don’t get a poodle. Couch potato? Stay away from dogs that are bred to work eight hours a day in close collaboration with their handler (and consider a senior dog!).
  • Above all, research. A client recently got a Jack Russell who is extremely aggressive toward her grandchildren because her previous JRT was “good with kids.” While there is a lot of behavioral variance within any breed, breed-specific behaviors are real and not to be taken lightly. I chose a Chow mix for my own family, but I would have chosen a different breed from the start if therapy work were a goal for us.

What attracted you to your dog? Do you feel as though he is a good fit in your family? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

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