One of the questions I’m most commonly asked is ‘what’s the best breed of dog to get?’. I’m sure most dog professionals are asked this too and will agree that it’s an impossible question to answer.
You often see articles titled things like ‘top 10 breeds for first-time dog owners’, ‘top breeds for families’, ‘5 most affectionate breeds’ and so on. There is however no ‘best breed’ and no guarantee that just because you’ve picked the breed which topped the ‘most affectionate’ list that your dog will indeed be endlessly affectionate.
Individuals of the same breed do often display some consistent traits and some behaviours are to be expected, but within each breed there is also a huge variation in individuals.
For every calm, placid Labrador you meet, there will be another who is bouncy and over-exuberant. There’s no guarantee that just because everyone says Labradors are easy to train and well-behaved, that yours indeed will match up to this expectation.
Genetics play a huge role in the temperament and personalities of our dogs, some of these genetics will include breed traits passed through generations, but each lineage of the breed will include differing levels of these traits. Alongside this, how puppies are raised, particularly within the first 16 weeks of life, will have a considerable influence on their temperament and personality.
While we can’t make absolute guarantees about breeds of dogs, there are some things we can be sure of when choosing the right dog.
Size and Strength
Puppies are small and cute, we can be distracted by how tiny they look and we soon forget just what they will grow in to. It’s important to consider this when choosing a puppy. Do you have the space for a big dog? Will you be able to physically control a strong dog?
Bigger dogs, especially those of certain breeds, typically come with a stigma attached to them.
While a small dog may get away with barking or lunging at people, a big dog is much more likely to get into trouble for the same behaviour.
We can complain all we like that it’s unfair, but it’s unlikely to ever change so it’s better to accept the reality and make sure you can always have full control over your dog.
It's something many people don’t prepare for and it can come as a nasty shock when faced with prejudice due to the breed of dog they own. Being aware of how your dog may be seen by others, and the additional pressures to have a well-behaved dog is an important factor to consider. Bigger dogs have less room for error, partly because they can do more damage due to their physical size but also because people will have preconceptions about certain breeds.
Think about your hopes for your dog too and whether they will fit in … is a giant breed going to be suitable for taking into a small café or into your workplace? Will the stigma of certain breeds limit how welcome you are in certain places?
By nature, some dogs are bred to be much more efficient learners, and some are bred to work closely with humans while some are bred to work more independently. This may impact certain aspects of training and cause issues if it contradicts what you need from your dog.
Some will say that if you work hard enough on training, you can counter innate breed traits and avoid these problems. There is some truth in that, but you will still be working within certain limits and potentially battling to counter your dog’s intrinsic motivations.
How ‘trainable’ a breed is will really depend what you want from your dog. If you’re looking for the basics of a good recall and good lead manners, you should be able to achieve this with any dog, but indeed some will be more challenging than others. If you have hopes of specific jobs or more advanced training, choosing a breed who is bred for those roles is sensible.
Going in with your eyes open will help avoid any surprises if you find your dog is more challenging with certain behaviours. But equally, breed traits are no excuse for poor behaviour and ignoring problems because ‘that’s what this breed does’ is as bad as not knowing in the first place.
The intensity of breeds traits will vary between different breeding lines, so spending time with different breeders is the best way to understand which puppy is right for you. Within each breed, there will be lines of dogs with emphasis on different traits.
For example, some breeders will be breeding dogs with a higher drive making them more geared towards sports and working homes. Yet others will be focused on breeding dogs who may be less suited to sports homes but better in a busy household. Similarly, there will be certain breeds bred with strong instincts towards guarding and driven for more intense work, while others will be selected for less intense traits and more suited to pet homes.
While the innate drives and traits will exist within the individuals, these will be displayed to different extents depending on the ancestors.
The only way to know what you’re getting is to get to know the dogs who are being bred and understand the traits they display.
A good breeder will know what traits are stronger and which are likely to be more suited to your lifestyle.
There are no absolute guarantees and even within litters you will a range of traits displayed. Some of this is dependent on how the dog is raised, if your Border Collie is engaged in activities to build their drive while also teaching impulse control from the start then they will hopefully possess an ability to switch between ‘work mode’ and ‘off time’.
If their drive is encouraged from the start but with no impulse control, the dog is likely to struggle to switch off. Comparatively, if there is no emphasis on building any drive and the dog is largely taught to control impulses, you may have a dog who doesn’t engage in high-energy activities.
This is all hypothetical because how much nature vs nurture is responsible for the personality of each dog is likely to be highly variable. A collie who has very strong genetic traits to chase and herd but who is raised with considerable impulse control training may still always fall-back on those genetic traits, meaning no amount of training can ever fully counter the desire to chase and herd.
It’s complicated right…?
Are there any guarantees?
This is where we put a disclaimer and say *there will always be exceptions and this is a broad generalisation* but yes there are some traits we can say are most likely to appear in certain breeds. There are also noticeable trends in behaviours within certain breeds, particularly breeds who are increasingly popular and at risk of being bred in puppy farms.
You will see some common themes in breeds if you spend some time around several individuals (or if you join a Facebook group for the breed!). To really get an idea of breed tendencies, you need to meet multiple dogs and spend enough time with them to really get an idea of what they’re like.
Choosing a Working Cocker because your friend has a lovely one, is not a good enough reason to decide it’s the right breed for you too. They might have an exceptionally calm one, perhaps it was naturally born with calm traits or perhaps they put the hard work in from the start.
Meet a few more working cockers and you’ll probably start to realise they are far from the easiest dog and there is a huge range within the breed.
They, like most Spaniels and Spaniel crosses, can be particularly susceptible to resource guarding traits, they often struggle to regulate their rest-time, and they can quickly become deaf if they realise how fun it is to hunt birds and wildlife.
The same story could be said for pretty much every breed. For every lovely ‘dream dog’ example you meet, there will be many more who have caused havoc for their owners and left them wondering what’s going wrong. As long as you know what you’re getting into, you can set your dog up to succeed and pre-empt any possible problems before they escalate.
Different breeds do have varying degrees of sociability but this is an incredibly difficult trait to quantify. You can’t assume every Golden Retriever is a people-loving cuddle monster, because they aren’t. Some of them won’t like people very much at all, they may be fearful or they may just prefer their own space. This might be influenced by how they’re raised and the early experiences they have, but equally a puppy is not a blank slate who we can shape to fit what we want, and some will be genetically wired to be wary of people or not keen on being cuddled.
Seeing the parents and understanding what the breeder is looking for in their dogs is likely to give a good clue as to whether your puppy is likely to be more or less sociable.
Some breeds are bred to be wary of people and while there will be exceptions, the vast majority of individuals are likely to possess this trait to some extent.
Likewise, some are bred to be much more sociable and resilient, Labradors and golden retrievers do typically fall into this category which is largely why they are so popular and branded as ‘the best family dogs’. But you can never assume that just because you picked this breed, it will match the description.
Before you get swept up in how cute a dog looks, you have to think of the day-to-day expectations. Many people will vaguely consider things like how much exercise the dog needs, whether it’s a high energy breed, and whether it will be a good family pet.
What people often neglect to think about is exactly what they want from their dog and how much they’re prepared to change their life to fit around their dog.
If you start out with clear expectations, and a flexibility to know when it’s not right, then you are much more likely to select a dog who is able to match these expectations, partly because you can choose the best suited breed and the most suitable puppy from within that breed, but also because you can begin training and socialisation from the start in line with your expectations.
It can’t be emphasised enough that no puppy is blank slate though. Choosing a breed which is known to be more sensitive and skittish and expecting to be able to socialise it enough for it to fit happily into a city home is likely to be bad idea. Picking a working-line dog with the aim of it settling quietly while you work all week and then ‘working’ it on the weekends is also a recipe for disaster.
Not forgetting the basic practicality of things like how much a breed may shed, whether they’re more prone to barking, how genetically wired they are to protect your home,
Despite what many articles online will tell you, there are no guarantees when it comes to choosing a breed of dog. The level of variety within each breed means you can never generalise to say which one is right for you on paper. We can however be sure that within breeds there will be consistent traits which will be displayed to differing extents, and the best way to be sure of a breed is to spend time with them and with several breeders so you can find the one breeding the most suitable dog for you.
Choosing the right breed does not mean you will have less work to do when you get your puppy, they will still need careful socialisation and training to prepare them for the life you’re bringing them in to.
Most importantly, don’t assume a puppy is blank slate ready to be shaped into what you need. All puppies are born with some breed-specific traits, they all have a genetic blueprint, and you will always be working within the limits of this. Some will have much wider limits which you have more flexibility to shape and mould, while others will be harder to change, no matter how much training you try to do.
Written by Naomi White
If you need help choosing a breed to suit your family, pop us an email for free advice: firstname.lastname@example.org