Anna writes: “My husband and I would love to add a dog to our family. He wants a big dog, but I’m worried about having a big dog around our two boys, ages 4 and 2. My friend who has small dogs, however, told me small dogs aren’t a good choice around young children because the dog could get hurt. There’s so much conflicting information out there. How do we find the right dog?”
This is one of those questions that keep coming up in different incarnations: “Which dog is right for someone in a small house / apartment?” “Which dog should I get for my children who are scared of dogs?”, “Which dog should I get if I don’t have a yard?” and so on.
My biggest problem with these questions, and the many answers that are posted on blogs all over the internet, listing one or two specific breeds, is that none of them address what the dog will be used for, what the person’s schedule looks like, and what the person’s experience with dogs is.
I know a lot of people assume that you cannot own a large dog unless you have a fenced in yard, and many people assume that any small dog will do great in an apartment. Both of those are not really true. Many people have large dogs without having a fenced yard. And many small dog breeds, such as Jack Russell Terriers, have a lot of energy and need a lot of exercise.
What I always try to tell people is to consider what they want to get out of the dog and what they are willing to put into the dog. Having a fenced yard does not make you a suitable home – it just means you’ll have an easier time finding a place for off-leash exercise and training. However, it doesn’t mean you can just open the door and your dog will exercise himself. Dogs need structured exercise, and I think that’s one of the things a lot of people overlook. Even if you have a yard, you either need to come up with a way to exercise your dog – mind and body – in the yard, and you still need to go on leashed walks.
Most people underestimate the importance of leashed walks. Leashed walks help you bond with your dog. They help the dog focus. They help exercise the dog in a controlled way and also build routines if you plan to set up an exercise program where you can work different parts of the dog – for example, walks with lots of uphill portions help build muscle in a dog’s hindquarters. But all of this doesn’t work if your walk consists of the dog running willy-nilly from left to right, stopping every five feet to sniff, or dragging you down the road.
In addition to structured walks, dogs also need off-leash exercise – fetching balls, playing with their toys, anything that engages them and gives them something to do. And they need to do things that stimulate their minds. The easiest way to stimulate a dog’s brain is to work on obedience (and tricks). Short sessions throughout the day – five minutes here, ten minutes there – are perfectly sufficient and help you work on behaviors you want while also exercising your dog’s noodle. It can be simple stuff like sit and down (basic behaviors), or more difficult stuff like fancy tricks and useful actions.
My dog, Abby, carries out the trash … and you should see her! She prances! But to get there required a lot of small tasks that had to be taught – Picking an item up or taking it from my hand. Holding on to it with a good grip, but not hard enough to get her teeth stuck in it. Heeling next to me to the dumpster. Handing the item to me on command. It’s an impressive trick to people, but more importantly, it’s a way to build my dog’s confidence and train her mind.
If you’re considering a new dog, the question shouldn’t be, “What breed is right for me?” The questions should be:
1) How much time do I have to dedicate to exercise? Training? Walking? Playing?
2) How much hair do I want to pick up (or how much grooming do I want to do)?
3) How much money can I afford to spend on classes?
4) What do I want to do with the dog? Any dog sports? Conformation?
5) What are my *reasons* for getting a dog? Companionship? Sports?
6) What are the breed traits of the breeds I’m considering?
7) What type of temperament can I expect from the breeds I’m considering?
8) How can I find a breeder or rescue that can *match* me with the right dog?