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Article  •  10 July 2017


Choosing the right dog for you

Advice from expert Mark Vette on choosing the right canine companion for you and your family.

First things first, let’s think about choosing the right pup for you. It’s all about doing your homework! Choose carefully, it’s for life — the dog’s and a big portion of yours.

You’ll need to consider which breed suits your lifestyle and personality, as well as how to pick the puppy that is best for you and your household from a litter — it’s a relationship that will last 10–15 years, after all!

I met a very lovely woman recently who was in her seventies and had lost a lot of her mobility. She was a dog lover, but couldn’t understand why her dog was so hyperactive and destructive. Having had dogs all her life, she had automatically adopted the same type of dog she’d always had: a young Border Collie pup, a notoriously high energy breed with an extreme need for exercise and stimulation. It’s no wonder the relationship was strained: the dog just wasn’t a good match for her at this slower and calmer stage of her life.

To help avoid this situation yourself, here are some things to think about when you’re next looking for a dog to join your family.


Choosing the Right Breed

We’ve all been there: that reactive, emotional decision to immediately get that puppy, the cutest thing we’ve ever seen. I was in Australia recently when one of my team sent me a photo of a rescue pup with a cheeky suggestion that we should get him. He was the spitting image of my old boy Blue — same colouring, same look, even down to his quirky eyebrows. I was hooked and, with a rush of blood to my head, I responded with a very fast YES! Thankfully, my daughter staged an intervention with a kindly suggestion that a fifth dog probably wasn’t what I needed right now. (Well, maybe not that kindly, given that I was in Australia and she was looking after my other four!)

Hopefully you’ll have a steady head alongside you the next time you select a pup, so you don’t make a quick, emotional decision. It is very tempting to simply choose the cutest puppy you can find, but you need to step back and look at the big picture.

There are over 400 different breeds of dog, and within them are thousands of lines of breeds that all have different character attributes and idiosyncrasies. Breeds are genetically different with different genetic markers and have been bred for different purposes, which creates behavioural differences. A Border Collie is very smart and wants to herd things, whereas a Saluki (a sight hound) will chase things by sight. Understanding these breed predispositions will help you determine if a particular dog is a good match. The choice comes down to combining your needs and wants from a dog with the attributes of various breeds and individuals (and therefore the dog’s needs) to get the ideal match. The better suited you and your dog are, the more fun and happy your time together will be.

Below is outlined the various attributes you should consider. I give a few examples of dogs that display those attributes; however, do your own research and reflect deeply on what kind of dog will suit your life. The relationship you have with your dog does have a big impact on your life and your relationships, so it’s worth taking the time.

Remember, too, that your lifestyle needs change across the course of your life, so the kind of dog you had in your teens might not be the kind of dog that you get when you have a young family or as you head into retirement. Think in 10–15 year spans.

Exercise level

It is important that your dog’s activity level suits your own. How much can you exercise your dog? All dogs need some form of exercise, but the degree varies greatly from breed to breed. You don’t want to deprive your dog of something as important as exercise or it may manifest into other issues: a well-exercised dog is a relaxed dog that’s less likely to cause chaos! That doesn’t mean you need to be a fitness junkie to have a dog; many breeds don’t require as much activity, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit. Note, too, that size doesn’t always matter in regard to exercise requirements!

High-energy dogs that need a lot of exercise include most of the hunting and working breeds and many of the terriers. Some examples are the Australian Cattle Dog, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd, Border Collie, Boxer, Boykin Spaniel, Dalmatian, Flat-Coated Retriever, Irish Setter, Jack Russell Terrier, Labradoodle, Pointer, Weimaraner, Siberian Husky and Doberman Pinscher.

Lower-energy dogs include the Basset Hound, Bulldog, Bull Mastiff, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chow Chow, French Bulldog, Great Dane, Old English Sheepdog, Pekingese, Pug, Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian and Saint Bernard.


Consider your family size, house size, land size, other animals on the property and whether you live in an urban or a rural area. Dogs need a contained environment as they are curious, prone to wandering and following scents (especially puppies and the hunter and scent-hound breeds who like to follow their noses). Obviously a larger area is better for a larger dog, and a small toy dog will be quite content with a smaller area. But that also relates to how often the dog gets to go walking or get out and about: a larger dog can cope in a smaller house if he is out exercising regularly during the day.


This is generally a matter of personal preference, and is also relevant to your lifestyle. What suits you: a giant breed or a small toy breed? Think about the size of the dog you think you’d like, then look at the characteristics of breeds to find one that also fits with the other considerations you’re looking at. Remember that the range is from 1 kilogram to 100 kilograms or more, so consider the space you have, the size of your car, the cost of feeding a larger dog versus a smaller one, and certain breeds’ predisposition to health issues, such as joint issues in a lot of the giant breeds. Also think about your ability to train a big, strong dog: Mastiffs, German Shepherds and other strong breeds can require a lot of strength to manage, so consider whether this is for you. I see this mismatch in my clinic a lot, so think carefully; it’s not fun if it goes wrong.


Do you want a very independent and self-sufficient dog, happy if she is at home while you are at work? Low-energy breeds like the Chow Chow, Miniature Schnauzer, Bulldog and Bichon Frise fit this bill. Or would you prefer a very affectionate and loving companion dog? Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Spaniels and the like fit this category. They love company, so be prepared to give it to them.

Do you want a dog that will be protective and alert you when people enter your property? Look to German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers. Or do you have a busy household with lots of comings and goings, which means it’s better for you to have a quieter dog that doesn’t make much of a fuss? In this case, perhaps consider a Pug, Bulldog or even a Scottish Terrier.

Some breeds used as guard dogs are the Bull Mastiff, Doberman Pinscher, Giant Schnauzer, Akita, German Shepherd, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Rottweiler, Puli and Rhodesian Ridgeback. Make sure you socialise them well and teach them when to be a watch dog and when to greet in friendly fashion — teach positive meet and greets early. All need lots of exercise and stimulation.

Do you want a dog that isn’t likely to chase other animals on your property? In that case, don’t go for a hunting breed, Spitz breeds or terriers (or otherwise cross-foster them intensely onto these animals in the formative period). Or would you like a dog with some hunting drive? Setters, Pointers, Spaniels and other hunting breeds will do well here.

Some of the breeds that can make great family dogs for households with kids include the Basset Hound, Beagle, Bernese Mountain Dog, Boston Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, Labrador and Irish Wolfhound. Dogs that are considered very gentle include the Pug, Golden Retriever, Labrador, Newfoundland, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Cocker Spaniel.

Whatever breed you do get, make sure you socialise your dog well in the formative period of 1–4 months with plenty of different ages and ethnicities, breeds of dogs and other species.


Do you want to spend a lot of time training your dog in agility and obedience, or would you rather have a playful and cuddly dog? Do you want or need your dog to perform any specific tasks? Certain breeds are thought to be more eager to learn new things, and they are usually intelligent and high-energy dogs, which means you’ll probably want to come up with new tricks and tasks on a regular basis to keep them stimulated and entertained. Trainable dog breeds won’t usually settle for snoozing all day, so if training and being really active isn’t your thing you may like to choose a different breed that’s more relaxed. Many working-dog breeds are very trainable, but require lots of exercise and stimulation.

Because they have been selected to work cooperatively with their handlers, some breeds are more trainable. Examples are the Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, Border Terrier, German Shepherd, Papillion, Poodle, Shetland Sheepdog, Kelpie, Huntaway and many of the hybrids or crosses, especially if they have some of the above breeds in them!

Physical traits and defects

Do you want a dog with a woollen type coat for anyone in the house with allergies? Do you want a dog with a lovely long, silky coat for patting? Also consider any breed-specific ailments: certain breeds are prone to various congenital, medical and psychological problems, such as cleft palate, blindness, hip dysplasia, fearfulness and deafness, to name just a few. Do your research.

Pure-bred or hybrid

If you are choosing a pure-bred, it’s important to choose an excellent breeder to ensure your dog doesn’t have the congenital defects that can be associated with certain breeds. Inbreeding can cause negative recessive traits to be thrown up. A good breeder will begin house training and socialisation, be able to give you good nutritional advice and tell you more about the breed and its qualities.

Alternatively, choose a hybrid (cross-breed), where you will benefit from hybrid vigour (more genetic variability that enhances health). The advantage of hybrids is that you often get the best of both breeds. Out-crossing like this usually improves general health (called hybrid vigour), provides psychological benefits and can often result in higher levels of trainability, and is my personal preference.

If you have fighting breeds (pure-bred or mixed) included in the mix, make sure that your dog is very well socialised with children, other dogs and other animals. In my experience the ‘gaminess’ (desire to attack and kill things — prey initially, but in pit-fighting breeds it can be other dogs and, if mal-socialised, people) trait selected for in terriers and the predisposition to fight in fighting breeds means that if they are not very well socialised they may be more prone to aggression issues. Fighting breeds aren’t inhibited from aggression by submissive signals, and their level of aggressiveness and ferocity of attack can be high. When paired with mal-socialisation it can make a deadly cocktail. Socialise them well early and de-sex them early. Hormones increase drive, dominance and dog/dog aggression.

Parent dogs

Remember, breeds aren’t like a car, in that you don’t get exactly the ‘model’ you ordered — there is considerable variability even amongst pure-breds. However, most pure-breds have been selected with certain looks and behavioural characteristics in mind, so it helps to think about what best suits you. It’s also good to look closely at the dam and sire (mum and dad) to get the best idea of what your pup may be like when he grows up. If you give your pup the correct rearing at the right time, then you can expect your pup to be as good as, or better than, his parents.


If you can, I’d recommend getting a puppy at 7–8 weeks old. This is the end of the neonatal period (the pup’s primary period of socialising, focused on the dam and weaning), and the beginning of the secondary stage of socialisation, focused on the mentor and the pack (family) — the critical ‘formative period’ (2–4 months). It is the most important time in your dog’s development and life. It is the time when pups naturally wean and leave the whelping den and start to meet the rest of the pack. You and your family are in essence the pack, and building that relationship during the formative period is essential to ensure a well-socialised, well-rounded dog. The most important point in Dog Zen!

Rescue dogs

With so many rescue dogs in need of a loving forever home, I always recommend that you adopt a dog from your local animal rescue shelter, especially a pup. If you want to rescue an adult dog, speak to the people at the rescue organisation to find out what the dog’s personality is like, and if she has any behavioural issues you need to be aware of. I believe strongly in rescuing dogs, so I think this is a great route; you just need to consider whether you have the time and ability to train a dog if she has behavioural problems. Dog Zen designed to help.

Dog Zen Mark Vette

World-renowned dog behaviourist and psychologist Mark Vette (of Driving Dogs and Flying Dogs fame) shows you how to transform your dog and create a harmonious life-long bond.

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