How to choose a dog to suit your lifestyle

 

“It’s so difficult,” she went on, “he never seems to run out of energy! It’s wearing me out.”

“I guess you were expecting that, as you chose a Working Cocker Spaniel?”

“Oh no - I had no idea! Is that why he’s like he is?”

I wish I had a pound for every time this conversation gets repeated. It’s a shame, because the lady here was well-intentioned. 

Maybe she chose her puppy because she liked his looks; maybe a friend has an older, quieter, spaniel which she liked; maybe it’s because this particular breed is currently fashionable as it has royal approval.

Whatever the reason, she made a wrong choice! For her lifestyle she’d have been better off with a quieter, slower dog, one bred as a pet, not a working breed. 

Working Cockers are smashing little dogs, but they’re bred to go all day in the field, at high speed, through scrub, water - anything they’re put to. Teaching them an off-switch takes some skill. They can even be too much of a handful for some agility enthusiasts, though there’s no doubting their speed and commitment to the task. So this really is unlikely to be a good choice for a first-time puppy-owner - a complete novice with dogs.

 

What breed is right for me?

There’s no “right breed”. While you can make a general description of a breed’s temperament, there can be huge variation in individuals. The UK Kennel Club has a breed-finder tool which may give you a start. 

There are, of course, crossbred puppies you’ll find in family homes or in shelters. Then there are the “designer dogs” bred for money. See this article on designer dogs to get an idea of what you may expect there. Don’t get confused over the allergy thing either. If a dog is a cross with a non-shedding breed, there is no guarantee that your puppy will not shed, and may do so plentifully! While these crosses may sound attractive (largely because of their cute names) they may be a mixture of two breeds, neither of which are suitable for your home! Mixing them together is not going to diminish their behavioural characteristics. 

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So before you start looking for a breeder for your new dog, you must narrow down the breed or type to fit your requirements. You need to be scrupulously honest about this! Dreaming about 10-mile hikes over the hills, when the last time you walked more than a hundred yards was when the shopping centre car park was particularly full, is unrealistic.

Start from where you are. List what you do now, and what you’d like to do with your dog, and make sure the lists match. If you are particularly houseproud, for instance, it’s important that you choose a dog that doesn’t shed year-round, or fling strings of saliva across the room whenever they shake their head. If your house is tiny, perhaps a tiny dog would be a good option. If you have small children you need a dog with an excellent temperament and an off-switch. While being calm can be taught - there's a book here to take you through the steps - it does help to be working with a puppy whose ancestry allows him to calm down.

If you have a hankering to do agility with your dog - then visit some agility events and talk to the people there. Explain you’re a beginner. You’ll get some very useful advice, and you’ll learn a lot from what you see. You don’t start your car-driving career with a Ferrari, so start with something a bit more biddable and you can grade up to a more energetic individual as you become more skilled.

Whatever puppy you choose, you won’t be doing any of those 10-mile walks for a year or so anyway. Babies need to grow their bones and strengthen their joints and muscles with play and light exercise before building up a training regime.

And, of course, all of this doesn’t only apply to Working Cocker Spaniels! They are a delightful little dog, but like all dogs, they need to be in the right home. 

 

Homework time

High-energy puppies!

High-energy puppies!

The key message here is to “do your homework”! It’s not fair to your new puppy or dog to have to try and fit into a totally unsuitable home. This will lead to frustration all round. And you may find yourself doubting your decision to get a dog for a companion, which would be very sad. 

By all means go for a rangy working dog that needs a lot of exercise and mental stimulation, if you are able to furnish that. But whatever you choose, do keep in mind that the dog looks as it does because of what it’s been bred to do - through many generations.

There is a splendid sculpture on the hills near my home, of two buzzards landing - claws forward - possibly on their prey. A passer-by said to me, “I don’t like that sculpture - they look too vicious.” No doubt to their prey they do look vicious, but it’s because of their purpose that they look as magnificent as they do to us. They are efficient hunters and killers, and everything about them is designed to make that work. 

Your dog has been bred for purpose. So that efficiency is represented in his shape and behaviour. If you don’t want to bother to train a recall, then avoid a dog that can cover 200 yards in 12 seconds! (Only kidding, you need to train a recall with any dog.)

 

A dog fit for purpose

And while you’re looking at a dog of any breed, be sure to check up on its parents’ health record. Breed societies and national kennel clubs have stringent guidelines for health assessments for breeding animals. Since the appalling scandal in the UK when it was shown that the majority of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are affected by a distressing and painful degenerative brain disease, the UK Kennel Club has focussed more on this. See their breed health guidelines here

So some breeds have particular problems with, say, Patella Luxation, Hip Dysplasia, maybe Progressive Retinal Atrophy or other eye problems. You need to have sight of the certificates showing their score on the relevant tests, and know how to understand that score. These tests are not cheap, and breeders who can show you evidence of going to this trouble and expense are demonstrating their care for the animals in their charge. 

And just because you’re getting a crossbreed, with some extra hybrid vigour thrown in, don’t think you can skip these tests! If one parent has poor hips, there will be a high chance of your puppy developing such a condition. Not when he’s old - maybe in his first year.

 

We owe it to our new charge to ensure the best start possible for him. 

 

There is a dog out there that is perfect for you and your family! Research has never been easier. Spend some time in the planning of your new puppy and that will pay you back for the rest of your dog’s life.

 

And once you have chosen your new puppy, you can avail of all the resources to help you start right. Check out the other posts under the  Puppies & Dogs tab above, and be sure to start following the free email course for new dog-owners.

 

How to choose the right dog for your family
All text and images © Copyright 2017 Beverley Courtney