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What kind of dog should you be looking for?

I’ll counter that with another question. What kind of dog do you want, and why? Before you answer, you really need to think about a few major points such as, how much of yourself you’re willing to invest in a dog; other family members and their abilities to interact well with animals; your own lifestyle and how the addition of a dog will change or enhance it, and what kind of experience you have with raising and training dogs. If you’re an ambitious, urban twentysomething who works at least 60 hours per week, has small children, prefers to read trade journals or work on your car during your free time, and have never owned a dog before, you’re probably not going to be happy with an Irish Setter or a Beauceron. Are you interested in a companion dog, or do you want one for some specific purpose, such as hunting or guarding? Is the dog going to live with you as a member of the family, or would you rather maintain your distance with a clear line between the dog’s world and yours?

In some cases, careful analysis reveals that you’d probably be better off with a nice houseplant. If so, by all means, get a philodendron and name it Shep. The best dog in the world still requires lots of time, effort and attention, and if you’re not able or willing to provide it, you’re wasting your time and the dog’s life.

If, however, you’ve thought about all these things and are still willing to embark on this ten to fifteen year journey, here are some basic tips.

While there are clear advantages to owning a purebred dog (namely, a somewhat better indication of temperament, learning capacity and maintenance requirements), consider the lowly mutt. For the most part, a dog is a dog, and there’s much to be said for hybrid vigor. Thousands of unwanted dogs are destroyed or abandoned every year in this country. If you can save just one of them, you’re making a payment on the collective debt we humans are incurring to the entities with whom we share the planet. Frankly, I see no reason to encourage puppy mills, so if you decide you’d like a purebred after all, do your homework and buy from a reputable, humane breeder, not from a marginal corner pet store displaying ten pups in a wire cage.

Should you get an adult dog, or a puppy? Well, an adult dog doesn’t generally need to be housebroken, it’s not going to surprise you by putting on a hundred pounds and growing three feet taller within six months, and you have a much clearer indication of it’s temperament. On the other hand, a pup is malleable and adjusts more easily to your requirements. This doesn’t mean less work...it only means you have more control over the results. If you’ve never owned a dog before, you’re likely better off with a puppy. Quite often, dogs end up in shelters because their owners were unable to handle them or made some serious blunders in dealing with them initially. And the possibility that an adult dog will have difficulties changing hands is very real and not to be taken lightly. Either way, you’ll need to spend some time reading, observing and experimenting....in that order, and BEFORE you acquire the dog.

Big ‘un, little ‘un, or something in between? I dunno. How much space do you have for a large animal? Do you have a physical condition that precludes handling a big dog on leash or being able to maneuver easily with an oblivious, eighty-pound pile of bones and fur sacked out on the floor half the time? Are you prepared to say goodbye sooner with a large dog than with a small one? Can you provide adequate, nourishing food for a big dog without dipping into the IRA?

What about temperament? Some dogs are just not meant to co-exist amiably with children, and no matter how intelligent, a dog isn’t going to respond to human kids in the same ways human adults do. Pre-schoolers usually aren’t capable of recognizing the non-verbal signals that a dog is losing patience and really doesn’t want to have his ears and tail yanked just now. While the average dog will simply leave the vicinity or call for help when the going gets rough, you can’t count on it in the case of a dominant or timid animal. A dominant will most likely have the impulse to take discipline into his own paws, and a timid beast could very well feel cornered and desperate. Either variety is potentially dangerous if left unsupervised around your kids. What would only be an admonishing nip on the ear by an impatient adult dog or a panicky snap easily avoided by quicker-reflexed packmates might cost your toddler a finger or an eye, and the dog its life. Bear this in mind when making your selection.

In case you’ve never owned a dog, let me caution you that veterinarians are both expensive and necessary. If your finances aren’t up to coping with chronic canine ailments, avoid breeds known for specific physical flaws. Dachshounds, for example, often have spinal problems, and some of the larger breeds like Danes and St. Bernards are plagued with dysplasia. Even if you own Muttley McMix, vet care is going to put a significant hole in your paycheck once in awhile.

Which brings me to my final comment. No matter what dog you choose, have it spayed or neutered at the earliest opportunity.