What type of dog is best suited to your needs?
A friend - Lisa - contacted me recently: she and her husband Dave were thinking of getting their first dog, and they wanted my advice.
It isn't easy to have a quick answer on a topic like this, so I suggested that we meet to have a chat. Lisa and Dave came out on a Bank Holiday Monday morning, and we decided to go for a walk along the local promenade together. Lisa explained what she was looking for: a small, friendly dog that would be easy to manage. Dave works from home, so the dog would rarely be on its own. She wanted to choose a rescue dog if possible, but when it came to the precise dog type, she really didn't know. What would I suggest?
My own view is that we probably spend too much time stressing about what breed of dog we want. We should choose a dog based on factors other than just "the breed".
A recent study of rescue dogs proved this point. Dog rescue centres use basic information about their dogs - including gender, breed, age and temperament - to help them to market dogs for new homes. Experienced volunteers at the rescue centres often make a guess of a dog's breed based on their appearance. This is understandable: what else can they do? And most people - like Lisa - do go looking for a particular breed or type of some kind.
The breed or type can make a significant impact on the outcome for the individual dog: studies have shown that bull terrier type dogs (such as Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses) take three times as long to get a new home than other breeds, even though studies have shown that they are no more dangerous than any other breed.
A recent research project investigated the accuracy of rescue workers' guesses at dog breeds: they took cheek swabs from a selection of dogs, then used a commercially available dog genetic test to obtain a scientific assessment of the dogs' breeds.
When they compared the results of these tests to the breeds that rescue centre volunteers had guessed, they found that the rescue workers were getting it right around two times out of three when there was one main breed involved. When there was more than one breed in a cross bred, they only guessed the correct combination in around one dog in ten.
To me, the message to people looking for a rescue dog is clear: you should judge a rescue dog on its personality and on how you interact with the animal yourself, rather than trying to form a judgement based on what people tell you about its breed or type before you have even seen it.
I explained this rationale to Lisa and Dave at the start of the run, and they then had some more questions for me: how should they assess a dog's personality, and what was best between small, medium and large, and short haired versus long haired?
These are complex questions to answer, but as luck would have it, I didn't have to do so on my own. A sequence of random events meant that Lisa and Dave discovered the answers in a very natural way.
As we strolled along the promenade, I happened to meet a number of my patients and their owners. I'd normally walk past, nodding a brief hello, but on this occasion, it was the perfect opportunity to stop and have a decent chat with every dog and owner that we met. This gave Lisa and Dave the perfect opportunity to engage with owners of a wide range of dog types.
We met Dippy and Daffy, two Miniature Schnauzers. We met Jessie, a Rough Collie. We had a chat to Rosie, a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. And we met a range of different cross bred dogs of various shapes and sizes. Each owner was delighted to talk about their pets. They all adored their own animals, and this in itself was a good message for Lisa and Dave: it didn't seem to matter what type of dog people had chosen. The important thing was that everyone had a dog that suited them. So the aim for Lisa and Dave was to meet a few rescue dogs, and to find out for themselves which animal chimed most clearly with their own lifestyle and likes. And they could relax a little, with the knowledge that there were no hard or strict rules: there was a high chance that as long as they were reasonably sensible, whatever type of dog they chose, it would work out well.
At the end of our walk, Lisa promised that she'd get back to me when they came to a final decision about their new pet.
It was a week later when the text from Lisa arrived: a decision had been made and although it was not what I expected, it was a wise answer.
They had decided that this was not the right time in their lives for a dog: they are hoping to have their first child in the next couple of years, and they'd rather wait until their human family is established before committing to sharing their lives with a dog as well.
I suspect that seeing all of those people out walking their dogs on the promenade served as a reminder of the commitment and work involved in having a dog. A dog can be a wonderful asset in your life, and it's important that your choice of dog matches your needs. But it's even more important to be absolutely sure that you are ready for a dog in your life.
Lisa and Dave have made the right call, at the right time in their life together. They'll have a dog one day, but just not yet.