Watch Tip: Helping someone choose a family pet

Posted on October 7th, 2012 by Trish Roman-Aquilino

Watch Tip LogoDo you know someone who is getting ready to add a pet to their household?  Has a neighbor been admiring your bond with your dog, and making noises about getting their own?  You can be a force of true good by helping them choose the right pet – since many pets surrendered to our shelters end up there because of the poor decision-making when making the initial choice.  Use the discussion points below, which focus on dogs, but really many of these criteria can and should be used to discern the appropriate cat to bring home, as well.

Making decisions with the mind as well as the heart

Assuming they have already accurately assessed their ability to commit to a pet, sit down with your friend, family member, or neighbor and make sure they approach the situation with as much thought as they do emotion, and discuss the following considerations.  You could even offer to go with them to select their pet – when emotion starts to overcome them, you can be the voice of reason.


Size really does matter.  Large, medium, small and toy – each category comes with some unique assets and challenges, and these need to be considered.  But people often fall prey to the misguided notion that small dogs are less “work” than big dogs, and don’t require as much exercise.  WRONG.  Great Danes, for instance, are notorious couch potatoes who actually make decent apartment dogs, because they demand very little exercise.  A Chihuahua or Jack Russell Terrier can be a very high-strung dog, and if not given the proper amount of exercise, training, and attention, can become quite a handful.

Size is an issue in terms of rental leases and homeowners associations:  often, there are weight limits if they are allowed at all.  Travel a lot?  Many hotel chains are pet-friendly, but some do have size restrictions as well.  If you often travel by plane, and are not comfortable with your dog traveling as “cargo” with the luggage, you will want to consider a dog small enough that it can accompany you in the cabin of the plane, and will want to make sure your new pet fits the restrictions set by the airline for doing so.  The largest breeds, such as Great Danes and English Mastiffs, can’t even travel as cargo.

Feeding a large dog can get expensive, along with the cost of veterinary care, as medications and some procedures rise in cost along with your pet’s weight.  Small dogs tend to live longer than large dogs, and giant breeds have the shortest life span of them all.

Activity Level

Be realistic about this one.  Do NOT bring home a high-energy dog like a Boxer expecting that this will “finally” get you off the couch and inspire you to be more active.  These are the animals that end up in the pound so very often, because, not only did the owner not make that lifestyle change, the poor dog was expected to go against all of its breeding and become a couch potato, too.  A high-energy dog that does not get the proper amount of exercise is going to redirect that energy elsewhere, usually in ways that are not pleasing to its owner – chewing, digging, chronic barking, etc.  And that’s when the frustrated owner dumps the pet at the shelter.  It’s far better to be realistic about your lifestyle, and find a dog that suits your lifestyle now, not the one you dream of having.

Behavioral Traits and Breed Profiles

It can be difficult to evaluate a dog’s behavior in a shelter kennel, if the shelter does not have behaviorists to make a proper assessment, you can do your research ahead of time on the types of breeds that are suitable to your situation and use that as a guide.  Do you have kids, other pets?  You will want to do your best to find another pet that can get along with them.  If you have access to a trainer that you trust, consider bringing them with you to evaluate your potential new pet, and bring everyone in the household, including pets (if possible), to see how everyone gets along.  This investment of time and effort will pay off in a happier household.

Adopting from a rescue or a private no-kill shelter usually affords you the opportunity to acquire more information on the behavioral traits of their rescued animals, since many live in foster homes and can be evaluated by their foster family on a day-to-day basis, in a home environment.  It goes without saying that along with this, researching the rescue or private shelter organization is a must as well, so that you are familiar with their standards, practices, and procedures, as not all rescues operate in the same manner (see our Watch Tip on rescue organizations.  Adopting from such organizations is still a life-saving proposal, because this allows them to rescue more animals.


Gender can be a necessary consideration if you are adding a dog to a home that already has one.  Most behaviorists suggest bringing home a dog of the opposite sex for the best chance of compatibility – male/male combinations being the second-most favorable combination, and female/female the least favorable.  That is not to say that these all are set in stone – proper introductions are always a must, and it often depends on the individual natures of the dogs involved, but these are things to consider.  Also, while most dogs being adopted from a shelter or rescue should already be spayed or fixed, if they are not, be aware it is more costly to spay a female, than to neuter a male, as the procedure is more invasive on a female.  Again, depending on breed, sometimes there are differences in disposition with regard to females vs. males that need to be considered.


Regardless of age or prior training, every dog that is brought home should receive some training with their new family – whether in a group class or private in-home training depends on the situation and resources of the new owner.  Many shelters offer discounted training sessions, as do many private trainers, for rescue dogs.  If a new family cannot find the time or avail themselves of the resources, they must think long and hard about their ability to dedicate themselves properly to a pet.


The age of your new pet needs to be a big consideration.  A puppy, while adorable, is nearly as much work as a human infant – potty-training, puppy shots, behavioral training and conditioning, teething, and broken sleep are just a few considerations.  An older dog that has been displaced from their previous situation is often already house-trained (although they often need a brief re-introduction, given their new surroundings), have been trained in some things, and are past the puppy chewing stage.

Adopting a dog that is just past the puppy stage, but not yet an adult can also be challenging in its own way – just like bringing home a teenager that may or may not have been given the proper start in life.  There is a good possibility of having to train with them very closely, to redirect any improper conditioning received from their earlier life, and they will also need consistency, supervision, and patience.

A full-grown or senior dog can be especially well-suited to those that want a dog that may require a bit of training to adjust to their new home, but probably won’t need as much guidance as younger dogs.  An adult dog is considered to be anywhere from 3-7 years of age, and at the age of approximately 8 years, most dogs are considered to be “senior.”  A giant breed will probably only live to be about 9 years old, while a Chihuahua can live to be 15 or 16 years old very easily.

If you must get a puppy

Never purchase an animal from a pet store; and if you are set on purchasing a particular breed of puppy, always get one from a reputable breeder.  Pet stores are often associated with puppy mills and practices such as overbreeding of female dogs and crowded, unsanitary conditions, abuse, and neglect.

If you are thinking about purchasing a puppy from a breeder, observe the environment in which the puppy was bred and born.  To find a trusted breeder in your region, ask people you know who have used breeders and find out their experiences.  Check with the American Kennel Club for recommended breeders.  But keep in mind that many rescues will have puppies for adoption, and check with breed rescues in your area if you are looking for a particular breed.


What is your capacity for handling the grooming needs of your pet?  Are you up for daily brushings?  Or do you want a pet that requires only a minor amount of weekly maintenance?  Do you need or want a dog that sheds very little?  Do you mind having to have your dog professionally groomed?  Some breeds need to have their anal glands expressed on a routine basis!  Who knew?  Once again, being familiar with the needs of breed profiles can be a great asset here, but some of it is basic and obvious – doesn’t that long-haired Maltese appear to require a decent amount of grooming to stay beautiful?  You betcha.

A final note about breeds

Many people adopt mixed breeds these days, but even so, being familiar with the various dog breeds is a must, so that some understanding of what that Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix might bring to your household, or if that American Pitbull/Chow Chow mix is going to pass muster with your homeowner’s insurance company list of banned breeds.  Indeed, breed discrimination is something that is often faced by dog owners, affecting breeds such as Pitbulls (or what is often described as “pitbull-type” breeds, encompassing a very broad realm), Chow Chows, Dobermans, German Shepherds, and mastiff breeds.  Beyond that, knowing the stock traits of various breeds or breed groups (herding, working, sporting, etc.) can be very helpful.  Jack Russell Terriers are notorious jumpers; Corgis, being herding dogs, like to nip heels and can be very territorial; Chow Chows tend to be independent and not particularly fond of other pets; coonhounds and foxhounds are the most dog-social of breeds.  Even when searching through various mixed breeds, having that basic knowledge of breed traits and being able to identify the breeds that suit your situation, can help you make an informed choice, instead of simply taking a shot in the dark.  Always remember that each dog is an individual, with its own history, and every breed has exceptions to the typical breed characteristics.




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