Dogs have aided mankind throughout their shared history, but as dogs became more valuable as workers, and more jobs were found for our canine partners, people began breeding their dogs with the goal of producing better workers. Perhaps one farmer had a female dog who was gentle with sheep yet tough enough to handle cattle. He wanted to perpetuate her abilities, so he found a neighboring farmer who had a male with the same abilities. They bred their dogs in the hopes of passing on those valuable traits.
The same happened within most of the occupations dogs filled: big game hunters, vermin hunters, livestock guardians, and more. The dog’s ability was much more important than any other traits at the time. But at various times during our shared history—from early Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations through today—the dog’s appearance was also important. People bred to accentuate certain characteristics, such as size, body type or shape, head and muzzle shape, coat color, type, and length, and more. In this way, breeds were developed.
What is a breed or mixed-breed?
The definition of a dog breed varies, depending on the expert being questioned. However, a breed has several unique characteristics:
- The dogs must have similar physical characteristics that make the breed unique from other
- The dogs must share temperament characteristics and, when appropriate, working abilities.
- The dogs must breed true (producing offspring like themselves) and must have bred true for a minimum of six or seven generations.
- The dogs in any given breed must share common ancestors. The gene pool might be smaller (with fewer individual dogs) or larger, but it must be shared.
What is a Breed Standard?
Modern breeds have a breed standard. This is a written description of the breed that details what dogs within the breed should look like and contains information on size, height, weight, shape of the body, length of the legs, shape of the head, and details of the coat. The breed standard is implemented by the national or international breed club that supervises the breed. At conformation shows, judges must be familiar with the breed standard and should judge those dogs accordingly. Wise breeders use the standard as a guideline to choose those dogs who compare most favorably with it.
Dog owners today, who are often unconcerned with the dog’s original occupation, often get purebred dogs because a purebred dog is more of a known entity than a mixed-breed dog. A mixed breed, simply because it is a mix of two or more breeds, is very much an unknown. You cannot know exactly how big the dog will be, how much and what type of coat the dog will have as an adult, and which temperament traits the dog will have. With a purebred, you know what the dog was bred to do (such as hunt or herd), and certain behaviors can be predicted because of this.
With a purebred, you even have a good idea as to the breed’s lifespan.
But mixed breeds have their fans, too. Many people feel that mixed breeds have fewer health problems than purebreds—that they have hybrid vigor. Others enjoy the surprise of the unknown and love the randomness and creativity that mixed breeds sometimes display. Many dog owners love the uniqueness of a mixed breed. While many purebreds look very much alike, most mixed breeds are one of a kind.
Breeds That Need Regular Grooming and Trims
Coats that need daily care, as well as professional grooming, take dedication. If these coats are not cared for correctly, mats and tangles can result, causing discomfort to the dog, added expenses when the dog visits the groomer, and even skin problems if the mats are ignored.
Picking a dog by size and shape
Most of the size variation of dogs is due to the breed’s original occupation. Dogs required to protect flocks of sheep had to be formidable enough to scare off predators, have the protective temperament and drive to battle predators, and be tough enough to survive the fight. Herding dogs needed to be agile enough to work the stock and small enough to have the stamina to work all day. Property guardian dogs had to be large enough to be intimidating to trespassers and formidable enough to ensure the trespassers left the property. Dogs bred to hunt vermin had to be small enough to fit into tight places or burrows after the vermin, yet tough enough to make the kill.
Body shape was also originally related to the dog’s job. The Dachshund’s long, low body shape allowed the dog to go down burrows after her prey. The Greyhound’s sleek body shape made the breed able to run fast, while the deep chest provided room for a large heart and lungs—all so the dog could run more efficiently.
For you, as a dog owner, size and body shape are usually a personal preference. Many people love the look of the giant breeds and the reaction these dogs instill in other people. Other people like much smaller dogs, especially the toys, because they can snuggle on the lap, fit into smaller places (such as a carrier under the seat of an airplane), or simply because they are so cute.
Coat Types & Hair Lengths
Coat types originally developed as a means of protecting the dog. Terriers, with their tough, wiry coats, were better able to fit through tight places and withstand battles with rats and other vermin.
Herding dogs with medium-length coats would be protected from briars and brambles, as well as bad weather, yet would not be burdened by too heavy a coat. Sled dogs with a thick double coat could withstand the coldest of temperatures and continue to work hard, pulling sleds in the snow.
Although a coat that enables the dog to work is still important, personal preferences and style trends also play a big part in the coat a breed may have. For example, Border Collies competing in conformation dog shows have a much more elegant coat than the Border Collies usually seen herding sheep.
Short slick coats do not mat or tangle and so are easy to care for in that respect. Nevertheless, many people mistakenly believe short-haired dogs don’t shed, but they do, and those little hairs can be bristly. Take the Staffordshire Bull Terrier for example. Their coats still need regular combing and brushing to keep the hair and skin healthy. Short coats shed, usually in the spring and fall, and the short hairs can be bristly.
Medium-length coats are not short and slick, but are not long and dragging on the floor either.
These coats, if not combed and brushed regularly, can tangle, especially behind the ears, under the collar, and on the back legs. When these coats shed, the soft hairs usually form hairballs, like dust bunnies, that will float throughout the house.
Long coats require more care than other coat types because the tangles form so easily. These coats are gorgeous, though, and well worth the care. Irish, English, and Gordon setters have wonderful long, flowing coats, as do Afghan Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, Maltese, and Yorkshire Terriers. Many breeds have coat types that don’t fit into these categories; some have coats that are unique. There is nothing quite like the amazing coat of an Old English Sheepdog that has been freshly brushed. A Bichon Frise has a unique coat that needs regular trimming.
The Puli’s coat is made up of long, vertical cords or tangles. Once the cords are formed, the coat is relatively easy to care for. oat or a curly coat.
In all types, the hair grows all the time and needs regular grooming. Puli, Kuvasz, and Komondors have hair that cords, or mats, in long, vertical cords all over the dog’s body. And then there are the hairless breeds, some of which have a few scattered hairs, while others have tufts on the head and feet. The variety of coat types is really amazing, with something to suit every- one’s taste.
Personalities and Activity Levels
One of the keys to a successful relationship with a dog is to try to match your personality and activity level with that of a dog breed. If you are a calm, quiet person, nothing is more annoying than a dog bouncing up and down, barking, and begging you to do something all the time. Although some differences in personality and activity levels can be good—a dog slightly more active and extroverted than you may get you outside more—too many differences are frustrating and aggravating.
Excited and Extroverted
These breeds are normally easily excited; they react to doorbells with vigor. They are also extroverts in the full sense of the word. As far as these breeds are concerned, the world is theirs!
Curious and Active Breeds
These are active, curious breeds who want to explore the world. They will relax but they’d rather not make a habit of it.
Dedicated and Hard Working
Every dog needs a job to do, although it’s more important for some breeds than others. These dogs have a strong hunting, herding, or working heritage and are happiest with a job to do. That might be as simple as obedience training or structured play, or may even be an easy as bringing in the newspaper each morning. These dogs need to feel needed.
Calmer, More Laid-Back Breeds
Although these breeds are happy to play and more than willing to get into trouble should it head their way, these breeds can also tend toward the couch potato lifestyle.
Although most dogs prefer to be close to their owners, some breeds are more demanding about it than others. These dogs, if isolated too much, will usually develop behavior problems.
After all you’ve been asked to think about—size, long hair or short, purebred or mixed, temperament, and more—there are actually a couple more things you should mull over before you go looking for a dog.
Getting a puppy or a dog?
Do you want a puppy or would the best dog for you be an adult? Puppies are cute, there’s no doubt about that, and everyone loves a puppy. But puppies are babies and need a lot of care, require very careful supervision, and need to spend a lot of time with you. On the other hand, puppies are like lumps of clay, ready for you to shape and mold. When you raise a puppy, it’s your responsibility, yes, but you can also raise the puppy the way you wish her to grow up.
As an example, when my sister started her residency for medical school, she decided to get a senior dog that was already potty trained and could hold its bladder for long periods if necessary.
If you don’t have the time or the patience for a puppy, or if you have very young children or senior citizens in the house who might be too fragile for a puppy, you may want an older puppy or an adult dog. This dog is past the worst of puppyhood (the house training, mouthing and biting, and, I hope, the chewing) and, depending on the dog’s age, is usually a little calmer. The downfall of adopting an older puppy or an adult is that doing so is much like buying a used car. You have no idea how she has been treated, whether the dog has had any training, or how she has been socialized to people and other dogs. Like a used car, she may be a gem or a lemon.
Male or Female?
You also need to decide whether you want a male or female dog. Depending on the individual breed and its characteristics, males are often a little more protective of their property than females and, as puppies, tend to be more destructive. Females are usually a little easier to house train, although males often take to obedience training better. Although some breeds may have a little bit of difference, as a general rule there is no difference in levels of excitability, behavior problems, or affection between males and females.
Finding A Puppy (or Dog)
The ideal place to find a purebred puppy or dog is with a reputable breeder. A reputable breeder knows his breed well, knows the breed standard, and can explain the breed to you in layman’s terms. He may even use one of his dogs as an example. He will breed only the best of his dogs and will have any needed health tests done prior to breeding. You will be able to see the puppies’ parents and maybe even the grandparents. A reputable breeder will also screen potential puppy buyers and will sell only to those who will provide the best for his puppies; he will turn away people obviously not suited to his breed. A reputable breeder will be available to the new owners and will answer questions when problems arise. If a puppy of his loses her home for any reason, the breeder will take that dog back into his home. You can find a reputable breeder through personal referrals or by asking questions at a local dog show.
Many people breed dogs, but not all fit the definition of reputable breeder; some simply wish to breed a litter from their male or female. Perhaps this breeder bought a dog for what she considers a great deal of money and wishes to recoup that expense by having a litter of puppies. Some may have simply neglected to spay or neuter their dogs and an accidental litter resulted. Others purposefully bred their dogs but have not done what is necessary (health tests or breeder education) to produce the best puppies possible. These breeders, often called backyard breeders, do sometimes turn out very nice dogs. More often, though, their dogs are of a lesser quality. The dogs may not measure up to the breed standard or may have health problems, including inherited health defects. Someone who wishes to become involved in breeding should contact a reputable breeder or the national breed club and ask if anyone is interested in mentoring him, guiding him through this confusing and difficult science.
A puppy mill is a breeder who produces puppies strictly for profit—often many, many puppies— and is not at all concerned with the breed standard. A puppy mill is usually a farm, and the dogs are housed in cages, often in layers of two or three, with feces and urine raining down on the dogs below. A puppy mill can be a family home, too, though, with simply far too many dogs being bred. The dogs used for breeding at a puppy mill are rarely, if ever, tested for health defects, and to maximize profits, the female dogs are usually bred the very first time they come into season.
You can also adopt a puppy or dog from a shelter. Many wonderful dogs, purebreds and mixed breeds, can be found in local shelters. Though some may have been given up by their owners because of behavioral or training difficulties, many more are at the shelter due to no fault of their own. Perhaps the puppy’s owner didn’t realize how much work puppies were and gave the puppy up. Or, maybe an elderly owner passed away and the family didn’t want the dog. The downfall to a shelter dog is that the dog is an unknown. There will be no information about the dog’s parents or genetics, or how the dog was treated previously. The good side to shelter adoption is that by adopting one of these dogs, you’re saving a dog’s life.
The most common reasons dogs are given up to shelters include:
- Landlord or homeowners’ association issues
- Dog is ill or injured and owner has no money for the dog’s care
- No time for the dog
- Too many dogs or pets in the home
- Bitch was not spayed and had a litter
- Behavior problems, including biting
Another source of dog adoptions is a rescue organization. These nonprofit organizations help find homes for dogs who can no longer remain in their homes. Some groups will take in any adopt- able dog, while others deal only with specific breeds. Many breed clubs, such as clubs for Labrador Retrievers or Rottweilers, help support or sponsor rescue groups. Other groups operate independently and survive on donations and fundraisers. Many of the dogs given up to rescue groups come