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How to Choose the Right Dog for Your Family

terriTerri Bright, Ph.D., BCBA-D, CAAB



Everywhere you look, there are pictures of homeless dogs. You see them on social media, on the Internet, on Petfinder, in shelters, in newspaper ads.  Their eyes are big.  They look sad.  Sometimes, they have music filled-videos intended to tug at your heartstrings.  You wish you could help them all.  The truth is, you just want to get a dog.  One dog. What’s the best way to go about getting the best dog for your family?

First, turn down the emotion that is stirred up by media.  As a family, discuss these questions:

  1. Does everyone in the family want a dog?
  2. Who will walk the dog? Feed it?  Take it to the vet?
  3. What level of activity do you expect from your new dog? Do you want a running partner, a fellow couch potato, or a combination of the two?
  4. Do you want a puppy? The advantage is you may be able to shape its behavior to be more appropriate to your lifestyle. The disadvantage is it has to be properly socialized before it is 14 weeks old, meaning weeks of Puppy Kindergarten. (Do NOT get a puppy if you cannot commit to puppy socialization class. Puppies who do not learn to be social are subject to becoming fearful and possibly aggressive when they grow up.) A puppy also has to go outside every two hours for 6-8 months, be trained to walk on a leash and to keep its feet on the ground around exciting people. Also, a puppy may later develop behavior or health problems that could not necessarily have been detected when it was small.
  5. Would your family consider an older dog? A dog over the age of three is mature, both health- and behavior-wise; it will be far easier to predict what this dog’s future health and behavior is, and you will have many great years with it. A dog over the age of 5-7 needs less exercise, and may be the perfect fit for your family!
  6. If you get a long-haired dog, who will brush it? If you get a dog who needs clipping every 6-8 weeks, at a cost of $80 per appointment, is that a reasonable expectation?

If you have the answers to these questions, you are ready to start your search. Here are some pros and cons to the different ways you can obtain a dog:

Pet store: 

Pros: Instant gratification.

Cons: Most pet store puppies are bred without regard to the behavioral or medical health of the parents or pups, genetic deficiencies abound, and often the pups have been exposed to infectious disease and at least mildly traumatized by transport from the Midwest, where they were bred.  Many of these puppies grow up to be very fearful and unhealthy dogs.  Buyer beware.

How to proceed: call the Department of Agriculture and see if there are complaints about this store.  Look closely at the animals in the store:  are their eyes clear, not runny?  Are they coughing or sneezing?  Ask to see their health records, and make sure they are up to date on vaccinations. Ask what the return policy is if you find out the puppy is ill or not a good match for your family at any time during its life. Be sure to have it examined by a vet as soon as you can.


Pros: An ethical breeder will likely want to co-own your puppy with you until it is spayed or neutered.  This is so they can keep a parental-type eye on the puppy if you are mistreating it.  An ethical breeder will agree in a written contract that they will take the puppy back at any time during its entire life, for any reason.

Cons: You may have to wait a long time to get a puppy, and meet criteria the breeder has in order to sell you one.

How to proceed:  Call the state or national Breed Club for the breed you are interested in. See which breeders have signed the Breed Club Ethics Statement and contact them.  Consider getting a retired show dog, or a puppy who, at age 6 months, isn’t show quality. (Note: if you do get an older puppy from a show breeder, make sure it has been socialized properly to other dogs, children, and people, rather than having lived in an outdoor kennel or inside one home its whole life.) Visit the kennel yourself and transport it home, rather than buying a puppy online and picking it up at the airport. This gives you the chance to opt out if you don’t like what you see at the breeder’s, and if you do like what you see, your pup will be less frightened if it is flying or driving with you than as cargo.

Breed Rescue:

Pros: Every purebred dog association has some sort of rescue organization associated with it.  If you have your heart set on one breed of dog, and do not want to buy a puppy or wait for your breed to appear in a shelter, breed rescue is the way to go.  The volunteers are usually quite familiar with the breed and work hard at finding the right match for a dog of their breed. A breed rescue should agree to take the dog back at any time during its life.

Cons: Be prepared for a lengthy process that involves a home visit and lengthy interviews and rigid criteria.  Some rescues, for example, simply will not permit you to adopt a dog unless you have a fenced-in yard. Be prepared to wait for the right dog, and be prepared to travel to see other dogs, as many breed rescue organizations will not ship a dog to you.

How to proceed:  Fill out an application, usually online.  Be patient and responsive to queries.  For some popular breeds, there is a long waiting list.


Pros: There are millions of dogs to look at online.  You can find the exact shade of dog you want, along with its purported size and breed.  If you like looking at dog pictures, this can be a full-time job! It is a definite “pro” if you can see a dog online, then go visit it in a local shelter.  Nearly all shelters display their available dogs on the site  You can type in your zip code and look at “local” animals.

Cons:  On Petfinder, “local” means the rescue group has that zip code; if a rescue organization does not have a “brick and mortar” facility, you could be looking at a dog with a Boston zip code that is in Arkansas. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of dogs came to New England from the south, and rescue groups learned that there were thousands more languishing and being euthanized in kennels down south, where spaying and neutering dogs is not as common as it is here. These dogs are imported in great numbers (14,000 dogs into Massachusetts in 2014 alone) by rescue organizations that work out of foster homes, rather than their own buildings.

How to proceed:  If you decide to adopt a “southern” dog, make sure that: 1) it was imported legally, meaning it was quarantined in a Department of Agriculture-approved facility for 48 hours after it crossed Massachusetts state lines. If you must leave the state to pick your dog up, be aware the organization is skirting Massachusetts laws.  The Department of Agriculture has reported that dogs are being brought into the state with contagious and infectious diseases and, absent the qualified quarantine, you could be adopting a sick dog;  2) you see the dog’s health records and all its vaccinations are up to date; 3) the organization you are adopting it from will take it back at any time if the dog does not fit in at your home or has health or behavioral problems; 4) you have a budget for behavioral training and possible consultation with a behaviorist, as many of these imported dogs are under-socialized, fearful, and have problems such as neophobia (fear of any new stimuli), separation anxiety, and fear aggression. (If you are not a Massachusetts resident, check with your own Department of Agriculture laws- most states have very similar laws for importing dogs.)


Pros: There are many wonderful shelters in New England.  Shelters that take in any animal regardless of age or health, are known as “open admission” shelters.  Shelters that do not admit certain breeds, elderly or ill dogs, or dogs with behavioral issues, are called “limited admission” shelters.  One terrific advantage of a local shelter is that a qualified adoption counselor can meet with your whole family, and then walk you through the process of picking out the right dog for you, and help you as you take the dog home, even giving advice after the dog is in your home.  If you have another dog at home, they can help you to assess whether your dog and the prospective dog would be a good match or not.  They can often “cat-test” a shelter dog to see how it reacts to cats. They can recommend the right trainer for your new dog, as well. The right shelter will agree to take a dog back any time, for any reason.

Cons: You may have to wait for exactly the right dog for you.  Generally, open-admission shelters tend towards having adolescent dogs that need training or older dogs, and limited admission shelters often import under-socialized puppies from the south (see above for those issues).

How to proceed: Visit your local shelters often, and get to know the types of dogs they have, as well as the people who work there. Get your application on file, familiarize yourself with the adoption procedure, and be prepared to follow it.  Some shelters may agree to help you find just the right dog for you if they know you well.


Finally, remember, you are adopting a new family member, so be patient and take your time. Be prepared to wait for the right dog, and to work with qualified professionals who will work with you, and who should continue to support you after you have taken your dog home. Make sure you take your new dog to your vet as soon as you get it.  Getting your new dog into a rewards-based training class will be the final step in making sure your new dog is a good fit, into your family, and into the community.