“We want to get a dog for our family. Do you recommend a particular breed or type of dog?”

I get this type of question primarily from people who have not had a dog as an adult, but have fond memories of their childhood canine companion, and they want their children to have the same experience. I want this too. My wish for every family is that they have the dog who curls up next to the rocking chair as mom nurses her newborn; sleeps beside the bed of his 6 year old boy every night; plunks himself in the middle of family movie night because being with his family is his idea of Heaven; and who gently licks away the tears from his teenage girl suffering through her first break-up. Every family deserves a dog whose gentle personality and canine goofiness defines the growing up years.

While there are no guarantees with any dog, no matter where you get him or how old he is, there are some things you can do to improve the chances that you get the dog you really want. In general, I do not recommend any particular breed, but as Pat Miller wrote in an article titled Selecting the Best Family Dog and Preparing him for Children, in the July 2009 issue of The Whole Dog Journal:

While the individual dog’s personality is more important than the general breed standard, there are certain breed characteristics that make some dogs more likely to be good candidates for the job of providing companionship to kids. These include a high tolerance for pain and discomfort; a resistance to becoming easily aroused; a resistance to being highly reinforce by chasing children who are running (or moving on bikes or skates, as just a few examples); and a predisposition to being quiet (as opposed to excessively vocal).

She lists Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Pyrenees, Irish Wolfhounds, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Australian and English Shepherds and Rough Collies as breeds that when properly socialized to children can do well with children. She recommends that parents think carefully about getting toy breeds as they are “tiny, fragile, and sensitive” – not necessarily ideal for families with active children. High energy dogs such as Weimaraners, Boxers, and Dalmatians, may be hard for families to provide the level of mental stimulation and physical exercise these dogs need, especially when there are babies in the house.

It bears repeating, however, that the most important thing you can do is evaluate a particular dog, rather than rely on breed standards, or hope that the adorable mixed breed dog you are considering has the best characteristics of the breeds who contributed to his particular DNA.

When I evaluate dogs, the very first, and most important thing I look for is social drive, especially towards children. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. In essence, You do not want a dog who tolerates children, you want a dog who lives for children.  The ideal family dog should be such a wiggling fool at the sight of little people, that you are sure he is going to split right out of his skin. “If a dog displays anything less than full enthusiasm for kids you’re asking for trouble.” (Miller, WDJ, August 2009).

So how do you evaluate the social drive in a dog? Here are some things to look for when considering any dog:

1) When you enter the room where the dog is, stand quietly and watch him. Do not immediately call him to you, but wait to see what he does in the presence of strangers. Does the dog happily approach you and your children? Resist taking home the shy or fearful dog, no matter how cute he is. “A fearful dog is probably not well-socialized, and it will take a lot of work (behavior modification) to help him become ‘normal.’ Love is not enough!” (Miller, WDJ April 2009).*  Also, see my blog on fearful puppies.

2) Is the environment more interesting to him than you are? You should be infinitely more interesting to the pup than his surroundings, especially if you are meeting him in his home where the environment is not novel. In my blogBeauty is only Fur Deep,  I compare two puppies from the same litter and discuss why I preferred one to the other. In the case of the male pup:

He was far more interested in the environment (though this was his house and not a new environment), did not stick around to be petted, was not interested in engaging with the people (i.e.: he did not seek out attention from anyone in the room, but did not object if someone petted him), he resisted being hugged and immediately walked away from me when I set him down. When offered a toy, he ran into another room and was not interested in playing with me or the kids.

He wasn’t a bad dog, he just wasn’t an ideal family dog, especially compared to the female who we felt was everything we would have wanted for a family.

3) How does the dog react to handling? Can you lift his lips by placing your hand on his snout, and using your thumb and forefinger gently pull up the sides of the dog’s mouth? Can you handle his paws, does he lean in for petting? If you are scared or uncertain about touching the dog’s head or feet ask yourself if this is a safe dog to be around your children. A good example of what you should look for when handling a dog is the female puppy mentioned above:

She sought out the children, curled up in their laps and gently licked their hands. When presented with a stuffed toy, she ran over to one of the children to solicit a game of fetch and tug. When petted, she curled in for more, did not mind when I lifted her lips or hugged her. In fact, when I hugged her she quickly settled into being with me and when I set her down, she leaned into my legs.

3) Is the dog easily aroused? I look for playfulness in a dog and I don’t mind if a puppy uses his mouth to explore the world, but a dog that goes from calm to over-the-top arousal and bites hard, growls, snaps, or is difficult to calm down is probably a dog you want to pass on. If movement and noise overly excite him, then imagine how difficult it would be to manage him with a group of six year old boys playing Transformers in the backyard.

4) Be sure to ask the current owner if the dog protects or guards toys, treats, food bowls, water bowls, blankets, beds, people, etc. If a dog tenses, growls, or snaps around things it values, this can be a dangerous situation in a home with children. As cute as Fifi may be, do not bring her home if she doesn’t know how to share.

5) Familiarize yourself with the warning signs that a puppy may be headed for behavioral trouble, and do not adopt him if, in addition to the items listed above, he shows these tendencies:

Avoiding or hiding from people, places, or objects.  This may indicate fear that could escalate into aggression as an adult.

Alarm barking, lunging, putting “hackles” up in response to people or animalsThis is another indication of fear that could mean serious problems as an adult dog if not addressed while the dog is young.

Excessive mouthing specifically during physical handling. Puppies should use their mouths to explore the world, but hard biting, especially if accompanied by stiffening, growling, or snarling could indicate underlying fear or pain and should be evaluated.

Reluctance to “sit” or “down” during training.  Pain, especially in the hips or elbows, can cause non-compliance to basic commands. Have the puppy examined to determine if there is an organic cause to his non-compliance. Anxiety is another cause of dogs not “obeying” commands (and is often labeled as stubbornness), and needs to be addressed appropriately. 

Confinement problems.  If  the puppy will not eat while confined, has excessive vocalizations in his crate, and/or will not settle in his crate, he may be showing early signs of separation or confinement anxiety.

6) If you are new to dogs, or feel as if choosing one for your family is a monumental task, find a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with temperament tests and ask her to help you. A dog is a 10 year (or more) commitment, so asking a professional to help you make the right choice will increase the likelihood you will find the canine companion who enhances and defines your family’s formative years.



* The Whole Dog Journal does not make all of its articles available to the public online. Some require that you buy an online subscription to view content. This is one of those articles. I have had a subscription for about 10 years and I think it is well worth the money, but I will leave that decision up to you.