How to Choose a Puppy

A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a well-known animal photographer asked me to assist her with handling dogs on a shoot she was doing for a pet food company. The photos were to be used for the packaging and advertisements for this new brand.

Throughout the two days of shooting we had a stream of dogs coming and going, each one as deliciously cute as the previous and next. By midway through the first day, I expressed my concern about how they could possibly choose amongst them.

My friend explained that the company had a specific vision for what they were looking for and had actually spent many months making lists of their criteria for the best spokesdog partner for the brand. Taking photos of numerous dogs allowed them to ‘test-drive’ many options in order to make their final choice.

Being that I was helping to handle the dogs on set, I had an opportunity to get to know each of them and their families a bit, and I couldn’t help but to express my concern about the ones who weren’t going to be chosen. As far as I could see, each was a dog that anyone would be proud to have as a representative. My friend smiled and reminded me of how often she had heard me tell people to carefully choose a dog for their family that had the best potential to be a great match.

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It was clear that much effort was being put into the choice of a dog spokesmodel and it was considered of extreme importance to all involved. My friend was right that one could only hope that prospective puppy parents would proceed with the choice of a puppy in a similar and even more selective manner. Unfortunately, people tend to spend far more time and effort researching and test-driving cars (or in this case spokesdogs) to find the right one than they do when choosing a canine companion. With that said, there is no doubt that the choice of a family companion dog is deserving of equal or greater consideration than the choice of a spokesdog or car. After all, a dog will be part of your family and live in your home for many years to come.

Thinking about a new puppy? Start with the ABC’s:
Ask for Assistance: The pet food company had chosen my friend for her superb photography skills, but also as an expert who could assist them in making their final spokesdog choice. Likewise, it is advisable for families to enlist the support of a trainer or shelter staff to help them choose the companion dog that is best suited to their family and vice versa. With hundreds of dogs to choose from, an expert can help you narrow down your choice.

Be Realistic: Just as there are no perfect people or families, consider that there are no breeds or mixes that are perfect. The goal is not to find the ‘perfect’ dog, but rather to narrow your search to a type of dog that has the general attributes that are most likely to fit with your lifestyle. Also, remember that each pup is an individual and while a general assessment of a pup’s potential future activity level, behavioral tendencies, and the like can be made, it is ultimately your responsibility to guide your pup towards becoming the mannerly, well-socialized adult dog you hope for. That will require early and ongoing management, supervision and training, and a whole lot of love.

Create a wish List: Start with a detailed list outlining your weekly schedule, the general time and monetary commitment you can make, and the activities you enjoy (and hope for your dog to be a part of). This will give you a good starting point in regards to what sort of dog may be most suitable for your family.

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Bringing home a puppy is a lifetime commitment that comes with many responsibilities to consider including the time and monetary expense.

Consider Veterinary Expenses: In an ideal world, a puppy would require veterinary visits for only the most routine vaccinations and checkups. Unfortunately, some dogs tend to be more prone to health issues. If you are considering a purebred dog, be sure to carefully research breed specific health concerns such as joint, heart, eye, skin, and breathing issues.

A client of mine welcomed a beautiful, wrinkly English Bulldog pup into her family with all of the high hopes one would expect from a new puppy parent. Unfortunately, within the first six months she had to make upwards of twenty visits to the veterinary and to veterinary specialists as the pup developed severe skin and breathing issues.

While she adores her dog and is committed to providing all the care he needs, she says that she might have chosen differently had she known that the breed tends to suffer from these issues more so than many others. While a dog of any breed or mix may someday require extensive veterinary treatment (which you should be prepared to provide), some types of dogs have the odds against them in regards to long-term health issues.

Food Fees: Providing a dog with a high quality diet is one of the fundamental responsibilities in regards to their overall well being. The difference in cost for a medium versus large sized dog is probably not vast. But, the cost of feeding a 5-pound dog versus a 120-pound dog surely is. Head to your local pet store and make a calculation of what a monthly supply of food will be for the size of dog you are considering and be sure you can comfortably budget for this for the next 15 years.

Grooming : For years I shared my life with Gordon Setters. I really enjoyed the time spent grooming them and was proud when people would comment on their beautiful, flowing black and tan coats. But, not everyone is prepared to commit the time for at home grooming or the expense of hiring a professional groomer to maintain a coat like this. Grooming is an essential part of helping to maintain any dog’s overall well-being, but some require a much more diligent commitment. So, be sure you choose a dog whose grooming requirements you can meet.

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Mixed Breed or Purebred?: I was quite pleased to find that all but one of the dogs that had been called in to audition as a spokesdog was a mixed breed. While I adore dogs of all shapes and sizes, and have a particular passion for understanding the history of breeds, I am thrilled when people choose the adoption option. I have found that many people are gravely disappointed when they choose a purebred dog they saw in a movie, or commercial and it doesn’t live up to the idealized image presented in the media or in the breed standard. After all, few Collies are as apt to consistently save a little boy’s life as Lassie and few German Shepherd Dogs are as heroic as Rin Tin Tin.

While there is certainly a predictability factor to choosing a purebred, it has most to do with looks. In regards to temperament and behavior, some breed generalizations ring true (after all, we developed breeds to highlight specific behaviors).

Unfortunately, many of these generalizations result in people choosing a dog in the hopes that it will live up to this idealized reputation with little or no guidance from them. In reality, even those breeds that are believed to be great with kids require the guidance of a loving family to help them reach their full potential.

Furthermore, within a breed, and even a litter, there will be a wide range of personalities. Much like how two children from the same family will have two unique personalities. So, if you choose a particular breed, be sure to spend plenty of time getting to know the adult dogs in the breeder’s line and the pups in the litter you are choosing from.

There is no such thing as a push button or ready-made family dog. Once you have chosen a dog that has the general characteristics you believe are best suited to your family, it is your responsibility to help guide the pup towards its full potential. That means providing them with the education they need to become a great canine companion and of course…a whole lifetime of love!