What kind of dog should I get?

Pup friends! A visit from Georgia.
Georgia (L), my in-laws’ dog, and Eden, as puppies.

No, I’m not getting another dog. (You can keep breathing, husband.)

But I am often asked this question, and I hear people asking it all the time. So I thought I’d develop an answer for what I would say, if I had the time and leisure, to someone who asked me what kind of dog they should get.

The most important things to remember, at the start, are:

  1. Breed doesn’t matter that much. Dogs are individuals. They may bear certain traits known to their breed, but it’s not a reliable predictor of temperament, generally. We have two purebred German shepherds and they have wildly different personalities from one another.
  2. Purebred dogs are pretty screwed up, genetically, on the whole. You can find great breeders who are trying to avoid the generations of inbreeding, but be prepared to pay a pretty penny for such a puppy.
  3. Think about your lifestyle and the type of dog that would fit it. Are you a runner? Look for energetic, athletic breeds. Or do you prefer Netflix in the evenings? Look for slower-moving, less active dogs. Consider your home, your city, your work hours, and your family.

We all develop affection for certain breeds or breed types, but the more time I spend reading about and living with dogs, the more convinced I am that we should stop obsessing about breed so much.

We have two purebred German shepherds that we rescued, and while I love them, I wouldn’t recommend shepherds to many people. Our girls are very bright, but intelligent dogs are high maintenance and demanding. Shepherds don’t really let you relax a whole lot. They also have a lot of minor health issues that, although not debilitating, are certainly costly on a monthly basis.

Doggy summer camp
Georgia might be the perfect dog.

Were we to ever get another dog, I’d want one like Georgia, featured above, who is my in-laws’ dog. She looks like a miniature Golden retriever. She’s full-grown and about 40 lbs. and has such a sunny, outgoing disposition. She’s healthy and companionable and sweet and she doesn’t give anyone a moment’s anxiety.

These are the things that would be important to me in another dog, beyond breed. When you are thinking about a dog, think about the dog’s health and structure before you think about their superficial looks or breed label.

I feel like the goal is to get a healthy dog who looks as much like a generic street dog as possible.

Stray dogs in Venezuela. Wikimedia Commons.
Stray dogs in Venezuela. Wikimedia Commons.

Qualities I’d look for in a dog (purebred or no)

  • 20-70 lbs. This is a generally safe and healthy range for a dog of any breed or type. When you start straying to the extremes on either end (too tiny or too giant), you start wandering into the zone of unhealthy pups. Yes, dogs who are smaller or larger than this range can be perfectly healthy, but the good rule of thumb is: don’t get a dog who is too tiny or too enormous.
  • Functional ears (no cropped ears). Dogs’ ears should work to help them communicate.
  • Long muzzle. No brachycephalic breeds for me, ever.
  • No skin folds. Don’t get a dog who was bred to have a lot of wrinkles, which serve no purpose and just cause the dog irritation and infection. This means no pugs, no bulldogs, no shar-peis, no basset hounds, etc.
  • Full tail (no docked tails). I’ve always loved Australian shepherds, but the tail docking is totally unnecessary at this point, and it causes dogs a lot of communication issues with their fellow canines. Our Aussie was constantly getting into spats with other dogs, and I think part of it was her taillessness. (For this reason, I’m interested in English shepherds as a solid alternative to Aussies.) Dogs need tails to communicate.
  • Fur capable of hackle-raising. This is something that John Bradshaw brought up in his book In Defence of Dogs, and I admit it’s not one that I thought about before, but being able to raise one’s hackles is another really important canine communication element that we often breed out of dogs. Super-short-haired dogs (like dobermans, whippets, boxers, etc.) are often not able to raise their hackles.
  • No exotic color patterns (all white, merles). All-white dogs can often be deaf; merles and pronounced spots (e.g., Dalmatians) can be blind and deaf. Avoid purebreds that breed for these traits.
  • Proper proportions (no exaggerated limbs, head shapes, eyes, muzzles). No dachshunds, corgis, pugs, bulldogs, bull terriers, French bulldogs, Boston terriers, pekingese, etc. This criterion rules out a lot of “trendy” breeds right now.

To sum it up: Think about wolves and think about street dogs. Can your purebred puppy communicate like these dogs? Can it run and jump and breathe normally? If not, think about another breed.

There are innumerable mixed breeds that fit these qualifications, and I think we’d most likely obtain our next dog from a shelter or rescue, aiming for a mixed-breed puppy that appeared to meet this criteria.

But if I were to pick a purebred, I’d be attracted to the following breeds that meet these standards:

English shepherds. By JulieFurgason at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
English shepherds. By JulieFurgason at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
  • English shepherd. This is the classic British Isles sheepdog. They come in a variety of colors and they are just solid working-type dogs who are neither too large nor too small. A bit like Aussies with tails.
  • Berger picard. I love these scruffy French sheepdogs.
  • Greyhound. Greyhounds tend to be among the healthiest purebreds because they are bred for speed, not necessarily for looks, and there are always plenty in rescues who need good homes.
  • Kooikerhondje. I adore these little Dutch spaniels. Perfect size and rare enough here that they’re not unbearably over-bred.
  • Silken windhound. I’ve always loved borzois, but their look is too extreme (that needle-pointed muzzle), and so an American scientist created her own breed (albeit with the rather goofy name), which is like a mini-borzoi. Her careful genetic analysis has led to some of these dogs living to be as old as 17!
Kooikerhondje. Wikimedia Commons.
Kooikerhondje. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s on your list of qualifications for a dog, purebred or not?

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4 thoughts on “What kind of dog should I get?

  1. I think this is a great article and whole-heartedly agree with it. I think if you get a mixed breed dog they tend more towards the dog ‘archetype’ as different purebreed genes cancel each other out. I think there is also a lot to be said for getting a rescue dog as a good rescue centre will have an idea of the dog’s temperament already, something which isn’t always obvious with a brood of puppies, and should be able to match the dog to a suitable home.

    However, I fell over laughing at the comment of English shepherds being the classic British Isles sheepdog. As a Brit I can assure you that English shepherds are a completely American breed – the typical sheepdog on this side of the pond is a border collie 😀

    1. Along with the English Shepherds I find it funny that the “Australian Shepherd” is an American breed as well 🙂

      As to the sort of dog one should get, matching it to your lifestyle is important. I have a fondness for Border Collies and Blue Heelers assuming you put in the training time and are willing to give them a good walk every day.

  2. Great piece Abby. Really well put and I would definitely forward that to anyone who ever asks me ‘what dog should I get’? When I was a kid I actually wanted to be a dog breed consultant (I’m sure such a thing now exists) partly because I though people were boring with their choices (ie always defaulting to labs if they wanted a family dog and then of course it gets fat as they don’t exercise it enough) but also because people weren’t necessarily thinking which breed would suit their lifestyles. I feel so lucky that we have ended up with a primitive/street dog, Tala, a bit by chance (if we had a purebreed I am drawn to Rhodesian ridgebacks and sighthounds) but it has made me learn so much more about primitive dogs, domestic dogs and dog communication (interestingly she has very short fur but very pronounced and frequently used hackles!) I have had a lot of friends say that would like a dog just like her as she weighs just 19kilos so is a nice medium size and can fit in the foot well of a full car but then can also puff herself up enough to look relatively intimidating when I run alone with her in empty places. She also has a great balance of being a able to run 20k one day as she has an athletic (not horrifically modified) build but then happily spend a couple days barely getting off the sofa as she wasn’t ‘bred’ for anything. Her main negative would be an enhanced obsession with status and territory which I think comes from her wild/feral recent ancestry. Once again great piece and I also couldn’t agree with you more on your recent article about the rise of breeds such as frenchies. Their ‘trendy’ presence on Instagram is somewhat sickening and I just can’t come to grips with why such deformed breeds are being promoted. Tala just recently lost out on a competition to one and every time they are chosen as a ‘brand ambassador’ they are just further promoting an unhealthy breed. Argh!!! Apologies for the mini rant!

  3. This is great! Definitely something I’ll save for the next time my boyfriend starts thinking of getting a dog.
    Last time didn’t go too well. The laziest man in the world, who’s never taken a walk in his life, decided to get one of the most energetic dogs I’ve ever met. And me, also a super lazy person, I’m now forced to take long runs daily because of this hyper little lady. Sure, it’s good for me, and I’ve accepted that I’ll be running every day for at least ten more years (because he’s not keeping her if we break up!). But sometimes I wish that boyfriend would’ve done some bloody reading before laying this kind of responsibility on me. How lucky for his dog there’s someone else here with a lot of free time who can take care of her.
    It horrors me to think of just how many neglected dogs must be out there. Just because of people being as stupid as my boyfriend.
    Thanks for sharing! I’ll make sure to show this to anyone talking about getting a dog.


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