A nice man who looks to be in his early 70s sits in my office with Midge, his young, black and white Border Collie, whom he received as a birthday gift from his daughter.
Midge is very pretty, with a shiny coat and a perky, fun-loving face. He complains that she never sits still, herds his grandchildren, and wants to play all of the time. He just can’t keep up with her. He asks me if I have a sedative that I can prescribe for her. Seems a little far fetched? Not really. I see it all the time. It’s a dog-owner mismatch. A marriage made in, well you know where. Dogs are often impulse buys, or gifts given without a lot of time spent researching how that particular dog will fit into that particular family. Do you know how to pick the right puppy for you? Let's start with a little quiz…
You’ve decided to add a puppy to your family. How do you go about finding the right one?
1. Think about why you are getting a puppy and what characteristics you would like in an adult dog. Then, try to find a puppy that fits the bill.
2. Go to the nearest pet store and pick the cutest one!
3. See if your four-year-old can spot one that looks good on the Internet, and then have it shipped to you.
If you picked #1, you answered correctly! Your relationship with your dog will outlast most marriages, so it pays to think about what you are looking for in a dog. Consider size, temperament, grooming requirements, trainability, and exercise requirements. If you want a purebred dog, research what that dog was originally bred for on the American Kennel Club website or the breed club website. We will discuss how to decode the language on these websites in a later blog.
Even though our breeds may have not been used for their original purpose for many years, the genetic traits for which they were selected still govern their behavior to some extent. Take the example of two of my favorite breeds: Beagles and Rottweilers. Beagles have been bred for 500 years to put their nose down and run for as many miles as it takes, while baying to let everyone know that they are on the scent. Rottweilers were bred to guard the property, working independently from the owner. If you can't live with the dog in the description, don't choose that breed! You can get help finding your right breed on one of many breed match websites (just do an Internet search), by meeting dogs of different breeds at places where dogs gather, and by speaking to your veterinarian.
If you have decided to get a purebred puppy, adopt her from a reputable breeder. Studies have shown that there is a genetic component to many types of aggression, fear, noise phobia and compulsive disorders. In addition, each breed has its own genetic predispositions to medical diseases. When you speak to the breeder, he or she should at least be familiar with those diseases. Most good breeders will have screened for them.
The current scientific information points to the [animal] parent’s behavior as the best predictor of the pup’s behavior. We’ll look at the influence your behavior has on your pup’s behavior in later blogs. But first, be sure to meet and interact with at least one if not both of the pup's parents. Sometimes the sire will not be at the breeder’s house. However, you can call his owner to set up a meeting or at least to talk about his personality. If you aren’t given access to the parents and they are on the property, or if you see the parents exhibit worrisome behaviors such as aggression or fear, go home without a puppy.
What about puppy stores? While you can’t make a blanket statement about any puppy source, generally you should avoid storefronts that sell puppies. Puppies should be with the litter and the dam until they are 7-8 weeks old. Often pups are shipped at a young age in order to get into the store at the right age for sale.
Wait, don’t get your hackles up! I am not saying that all puppies from puppy stores are bad dogs. Let's look at what we know through published scientific studies. Puppies who are separated from their litters or their dam before eight weeks are more likely to develop problem behaviors such as destructiveness, fear, aggression and reactivity when compared with pups who are left with the litter until eight weeks. Because you won’t have contact with the breeder, you will have no indication of the medical or behavioral predispositions inherent in your new puppy.
Finally, in my experience, stores that sell pups are more likely to have sick pups. This is because often, many pups from different litters are put into one place, facilitating the spread of disease.
You might choose to get a mixed breed puppy. Mixed breed pups make great pets. Their behavior is just as predictable as a purebred and they often are less likely to have the common medical problems found in purebred dogs. You also have the deep joy of knowing that you helped a dog who really needed it. Wonderful mixed breed pups are available from a wealth of sources, such as humane organizations, animal control, and rescue organizations. If you are able to meet the parents, make sure to do so. If the pup is in foster care, you can ask the foster parent about the pup’s personality.
No matter what the source, if you can’t meet the parents, you will have to try to assess the behavior and health of the pup before you bring her home. More next week on what questions to ask and how to pick the best puppy for your family.
For those of you who are wondering how I am doing with my puppy/dog search, we are focusing on a couple of breeds right now: Labrador Retriever and Beagle because of their great temperaments. We are leaning toward an adult dog, but I can’t say what we are going to do until the dog passes over the threshold of our house. If the right dog finds us, regardless of the breed or lack thereof, she is staying!
Dr. Lisa Radosta