The Best Dog Breeds For You And Your Family – From A Veterinarian’s Perspective
Ron Hines DVM PhD
I get a lot of emails from people whose opinions on dog breeds are different from mine. The breeders of “rare” exotic and strange-looking dogs. Those that favor dogs with long show champion pedigrees. Pet owners inclined to purchase dogs of the moment, the breeds seen in popular movies or owned by media stars. But as a veterinarian, I see my job as assisting you in having a healthy, well-adjusted pet. A dog whose potential lifespan is long and happy. One that will be a joy to you and your family for many years to come. One that will not generate endless veterinary bills. I want both you and your next dog family member to be healthy and happy. That is why my outlook is not the same as that of breeders, kennel clubs, the AVMA or those that suggest you choose a pet based on its stylishness, trendiness or cuteness. I want you to choose a dog that is genetically likely to have good genes, good health and a good temperament – even if that means that my cash register rings less frequently.
Years ago it was easier for you to choose a healthy dog because so few of the “rare” breeds were available. Labrador and golden retrievers represented the best in the working breeds – dogs that were bred for a cheerful nature, outgoing personality, good health, a will to please and a love of children. Working dogs such as them have relatively few breed-specific illnesses when they come from working bloodlines. The mix changes when dog shows and their “judges” get involved, or when dogs are indiscriminately bred for profit. Those traditional lines were not nearly as subject to skin and joint problems until they were bred for show and profit. They were also smaller dogs then – it’s the larger-than-life dogs that catch the judge’s and the public’s eye and win show medals. What happens to them later in life and how well they integrate into a family setting is of no concern to these judges. They brush away the fact that larger than life means shorter in life. That a dog that will stand rigidly on a judging platform in front of an audience of hundreds of strange people might be aloof, detached or mentally challenged.
Good health and temperament exist in hunting and working breeds because their foundation breeders were not sentimental – they only breed dogs with the attributes they desired. Fortunately, Labs and other water dogs strongly imprint these positive traits when bred to another race of dog. So many of the dogs you see at animal shelters share those Labrador or golden retriever attributes.
A dog’s personality is highly influenced by its family genetics. That is, the most important factor in obtaining a loving healthy dog is to choose a puppy or adult that was bred from a dame and a sire that has the same characteristics you are looking for. That is why it is so terribly important that you choose your puppy after observing both of the puppies’ parents. All puppies are cute. But when they become adults, they will be very much like their parents. If a parent is aloof, shy, aggressive, fearful, dominant or submissive, hyperactive, mentally dense, or forgetful then their puppies will likely grow up to share those same traits.
If the breeder will not let you spend time (alone) with both parents, do not purchase that puppy. When selecting a puppy or adult dog, spend your time observing the animal – not listening to a breeder or shelter worker’s sales pitch. I suggest you never ever purchase a dog (or any animal) through a third party such as a pet shop. A conscientious breeder will be more than willing to introduce you to the puppy’s parents. All puppies look cute, but they will grow into adults whose temperament and health are quite like their parents.
The same rules go for the dog’s health. If a parent has bone or joint disease, allergic skin disease, other skin disease, bad teeth and gums, ear infections, collapsed nostrils, eye problems, separation anxiety, destructive behavior, tender feet (cutting toenails), oily musty skin odor, coprophagy (eating poop), liver, heart or kidney disease, bladder stones, asthma, poor physique or coordination, umbilical and other hernias or another disease, then the puppy is at least ten times as likely to inherit these problems than a puppy from healthy parents. Certain breeds are almost guaranteed to have certain breed-related problems. Read about that here.
Equally important, is the historic temperament of the breed of dog you select. It is easy to fall in love with a puppy the instant you see it. Often the weakest pup in the litter is the most appealing. But remember, you will have 12-18 years with this animal as a member of your family. Do you want the vet bills this puppy will generate? Do you want the family tension it may provide? Do you want the guilt associated with owning a sickly pet? These are reasons I never suggest a child be taken puppy or dog shopping. Children are impulsive. If you are too, take a more practical friend along. I also discourage buying a puppy as a present for special occasions such as Christmas and birthdays. Christmas and birthdays pass – but the puppy becomes a dog and remains with you. It is also unwise to purchase a pet to relieve the loneliness of a family member whose partner has passed away. Make the suggestion if you like, but let the decision be theirs.
Once you decide you would be happy with either parent of the puppy you are considering, begin looking at the pups. Do not pick puppies from a litter where the first half have already been sold and left the premises – the healthiest pups usually sell first. If possible, do not buy puppies from a bitch’s first litter. Ideally, it will be her third litter by the same stud, and you can visit some pups from her first two litters and meet their owners.
Do not buy the largest or smallest puppy in a litter. Look for litter size – generally the more puppies in a litter, the healthier they will be. So, when you have satisfied yourself on these general points, start looking at the pups themselves. I generally keep some cockle burs in my pocket that I can stick on the puppies I like, so I can pick them out again later.
Look for puppies that are playful and curious about your presence – not forlorn and apathetic. The puppy should come up to you and begin to play. It should be clean. There should be no fleas or tapeworm segments on the pup. The owner should willingly supply the name of her/his veterinarian and satisfied customers from prior litters.
Look at the general cleanliness of the operation. Don’t pay attention to awards, show circuit medals, excuses for problems (“her skin broke out yesterday because she got into some fire ants” etc.).
The puppy should remain calmly in your arms for thirty to sixty seconds and not attempt to squirm away. The puppy should not vocalize, nip or scratch because you are holding it. Do not buy or accept a free puppy from anyone who apologizes for its behavior by stating that it or its parents were abused. Abuse does not account for an animal’s innate traits. Some of the most loving puppies and dogs at your humane society came from atrocious conditions.
Breeding animals conscientiously is not a very profitable business. If it is, it is because the owners are marketing the pups, or scrimping on something such as the quality of their diet, breeding a bitch too often, breeding dogs whose health or temperament is undesirable, ignoring medical conditions, buying their drugs at a feed store and administering them themselves, or going to the least thorough veterinarian in the community.
Because most puppy mill operations are seedy, their owner often tries to wow you with brick-a-rack shelves of trophies and long AKC pedigrees on their dogs. Or see them through third parties. I personally would not want a pet that would stand motionless for hours on a table before a group of dog judges. Paradoxically, some of these breeders refer to their cull puppies as being of “pet quality” and of lesser value than “show quality” stock.
I would not purchase anything from a breeder who shows this attitude. I particularly like to find breeders that still work their dogs in the dog’s traditional role. Such as field trial Labradors, and working breeds that still work in the area they were intended. Show judges never look for the signs of a quality pet. They judge based on arbitrary, perfidious and trendy criteria that are often antithetical (backwards) to good health and temperament.
I am going to make a pitch now for adopting your next young dog from your local SPCA. First, what you see is what you get. Dogs that have their permanent fangs halfway down are approximately 6 months of age. By then, the cuteness of puppyhood has worn thin, and you will see the dog you will end up with. I would insist that the shelter allow you to have a pre-adoption examination by a veterinarian of your choice. I would disregard most information provided to you by the shelter – their job is to place all animals in homes so that they are not destroyed. Their job is not to find the best pet for your household.
What follows is a list of many breeds of dogs that you can choose from. The list can never be complete because new breeds of dogs – like new fashions -are being thought up daily. Generally, the “rarer” the breed, the more subject it is to health concerns. This is because the gene pool of these rare breeds is too small. That is they are all inbred and closely related. They are often plagued by the same inbreeding-related diseases that plague small human communities – such as the Amish. My list does not include all dog breeds. But it gives you a good starting point for your search.
These dogs generally have loving personalities. I personally do not find them as intelligent as non-Asiatic terriers, but then people do not have pets for their intelligence and their owners love them dearly. My biggest concern with this group is that their life span is often shorter than other terriers (10-13 years) and that virtually all of them go blind. They also have a higher than normal propensity (likelihood) for ear infections and seborrheic dermatitis.
This is a perplexing group of dogs to comment on. The majority of them are loving pets with adults and children. The problem is that when they go awry, there are exceptionally dangerous because when they bite, they lock their jaws and will not release. They also have the inclination to lose their loving nature when they enter a pack of dogs more aggressive than themselves.
Exceptions are boxers bulldogs and Bostons, who seem to have lost their fighting and negative traits. Do not purchase puppies when either parent is aloof or distrusting! Do not purchase them from owners who fight their dogs. If you purchase one of these breeds, accept the fact that it may never get on well with other dogs and may eat cats, birds, etc.
Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog
American Pit Bull Terrier (Pit Bull Terrier)
American Staffordshire Terrier (Bull Terrier, Pit Bull)
English Bull Mastiff
These dogs are just what their name implies. They guard you and your children from perceived threats by biting. A good-tempered dog of this class will differentiate the mailman, garbage man your guests, relatives, your children’s wild playmates and veterinarian from burglars, unfortunately some make the wrong decision. You need to be strongly assertive and in charge with these breeds, so they look to you for decisions regarding strangers. If your wife or husband is passive or submissive to dogs, do not purchase one of these breeds. Passive or submissive people rarely overcome this problem by attending dog obedience school.
The German shepherd is one of the most intelligent of dogs. When purchasing one of these breeds, try not to obtain a pup from parents that are too large. Play close attention to the gait of the parents because all of these breeds have a tendency to hip dysplasia or, better yet, from parents that have been certified dysplasia free. Some of these dogs have aggressive temperaments that make them undesirable as pets.
Chow Chows, Akitas Great Danes and large Rottweilers are not known for their long life span. With the exception of Danes and Alsatians, these dogs are also prone to eyelid defects. Be sure to check the parent’s eyes for mattering, inflammation squinting and infection and ask if corrective eyelid surgery was performed on either parent. Be sure the parents hair coats are glossy, no bald patches are present, and the coat is odor free.
German Shepherd (Alsatian)
I would not purchase a puppy of this group from any operation with over six females. I particularly like breeders that work their dogs in field trials, search and rescue, etc. Giant breeds that do not come from puppy mills or through pet shops tend to have wonderful personalities. The size of these dogs can make them a poor choice if you do not have adequate room for them. Be sure that the parents are not aggressive! My biggest concern with giant breeds that that they age so rapidly, reach senility sooner than smaller breeds and have such an abbreviated life span. If this doesn’t bother you, purchase one.
Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
Bernese Mountain Dog
Several readers have inquired why I did not mention Neapolitan Mastiffs. This is because, although it is an ancient breed, it was an uncommon pet in the US until quite recently. First, I must say that there are great individuals within any breed – but these individuals may not be the norm for the breed. Also, bloodlines within a breed differ greatly in personality. No matter what breed you choose, insist on interacting with both parents of the puppy that you are considering. Accept NO excuses from the breeder. Never purchase any dog sight unseen. Be cautious of dogs that were sold and then returned to the breeder. Neapolitan Mastiffs were bred to be aggressive guardians and protectors of their owners and their possessions. Unfortunately, the limited experience I have had with this breed has been negative. However, the dogs I examined were brought to me because of aggression and dominance problems, as well as for quarantine after biting strangers. They may not have been characteristic of all Neos. I had to destroy two of these dogs when I could not modify their behavior, and I hate to put down animals. My chief concern is the temperament of the breed. They were specifically bred to be large, powerful, threatening and suspicious. They have an enormously powerful bite. When they attack, they can be lethal to other pets or humans. Some kill cats – or dogs of their same-sex. Secondly, I have found that among larger breeds, the more the breed differs from the shepherd/wolf norm, the more likely it is to have health problems and a shorter life. I also do not suggest that pet lovers ever purchase a breed that is currently trendy and in vogue. Often these “hot” breeds have “feet of clay” and rapidly fall out of favor. Tried and true breeds are true for a reason. Minor problems with Neos are shedding, snorting, snoring, slobbering, drooling, gassiness and eye problems associated with loose and excessive facial skin. Like all giant breeds, they die quite young and are prone to arthritis. They do not tolerate heat well. If you have your heart set on this breed, realize that you may lose some of your friends, have problems obtaining home liability insurance and incur the animosity of fearful neighbors. Definitely do not purchase or accept a Neo if you and your spouse are not dominant, assertive personalities. You will be safer purchasing a Neo that is three years old or older because you can evaluate its adult personality before you accept it.
Miscellaneous Toy Breeds:
These are all intelligent, loving breeds with a propensity to become spoiled rotten. More than half my clients sleep with their toy breeds, and most share their meals with their owners. They make wonderful companions – but will take advantage of you if you let them. They quickly learn the limits and borders of their behavior and generally mature out they way you want them.
These are very intelligent and very emotional and active dogs. They tend to good health, but may be snappy around children.
They do not do well when both owners work and the dog is forced to spend its days alone. They tend to have good coats with minimal oil and a minimum of breed-related diseases.
Pointers are often kept by owners who hunt them. Hunters tend to be practical people who do not put up with bad behavior or poor health. If you can, purchase from a hunter, hunting club or field trial aficionado. Pointers are not the world’s most intelligent dogs, but they go the extra mile to please their owners and are loving and affectionate.
German Pointer (Deuche Staande Hund)
English Pointer (Engelse Pointer)
Portugese Pointer (Perdigueiro)
The same general points that were made for Pointers apply to Scent Hounds. These are hunting dogs that follow the scent or spoor of game. Unless purchased from hunting sources, they tend to have more allergic skin diseases than other breeds, so be sure that both parents are over 2.5 yrs old and have good coats. They tend to be very vocal, so be sure your neighbors are either deaf or understanding.
Blue Tick Hound
Catahoula Leopard Dog
These are exceptionally intelligent, long-lived and desirable pets. They shed very little and do not have oily coats.
Certain lines do have more allergic skin disease and allergies to vaccinations than dogs in general. So be sure to check the status of both parents. They tend to be closely attuned to their owners. When the owners are nervous or depressed, these dogs will be too.
Because setters are used to flush game birds, they tend to be hyperactive. This is not a problem if you are a “setter or spaniel person”. There is just a lot of tugging at the leash, jumping up on the owners and slobbering going on. Setters, pointers and spaniels have similar intelligence. They have slightly more than the average number of allergic skin complaints. Some of these skin problems are food allergies, but more relate to dusts and pollen in the air. They require a lot of skin care and grooming.
These tend to be happy, affectionate, non-aggressive pets. The long-haired varieties, such as Afghans, require a lot of grooming time. Many result from small show-circuit gene pools, so the health of the parents is doubly important. Of the group, greyhounds obtained as “racing culls” have the best health and sweetest nature.
Afghan Hound (Afgaanese Windhond)
Borzoi (Russian Wolf Hound)
See my comments on setters. Spaniels are quite like setters. They do tend to suffer from chronic ear infections, so check both parents out for reddened, musty-smelling or discolored ear canals. Again, the “rarer” spaniels have small gene pools, which makes them more susceptible to genetic diseases.
American Cocker Spaniel
English Cocker Spaniel
American Water Spaniel
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (Toy Spaniel)
Irish Water Spaniel
English Toy Spaniel
Springer Spaniel (English Springer)
Springer Spaniel (Welsh Springer Spaniel)
Welsh Springer Spaniel
Like schnauzers, these are exceptionally intelligent, long-lived and desirable pets. They shed very little and do not have oily coats. Also like schnauzers, certain lines do have more allergic skin disease and allergies to vaccinations than dogs in general. They also seem to have a greater incidence of epilepsy. So be sure to check the status of both parents. They tend to be closely attuned to their owners. When the owners are nervous or depressed, these dogs will be too. Most of mine have trained their owner into giving them people rather than dog food. These dogs will lose their teeth and develop strong bad breath unless you brush their teeth or have a veterinarian clean them every year.
Dandie Dinmont Terrier
Wirehair Fox Terrier
Jack Russell Terrier
Kerry Blue Terrier
Pit Bull Terrier
Portugese Terrier Pointer
Scottish Terrier (Aberdeen Terrier)
Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier
West Highland White Terrier
Black Russian Terrier
Irish Tgerrier (Terrier)
Because these dogs are still often hunted, their general health and temperaments are good. They have great stamina, mellow dispositions and make great pets.
Dutch Partridge Dog
Like the upland retrievers, they are often still hunted, so their general health and temperaments are good. I would not purchase any of these dogs from show breeders – they are selecting for the wrong traits. The exception would be the Standard Poodle because these are rarely hunted.
Flat Coated Retriever
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Portugese Waterhound (Water Dog)
German Short Hair Pointer
My suggestion is that anyone living south of Kansas purchase only short-haired dogs. Many of these breeds were bred for cold climates. They suffer greatly in my portion of Florida. A second alternative that few of my clients accept is to have the dogs sheared three times a year. Dalmatians can be shy and distrusting, so check their parents out well. All these breed really try to please their owners. They are quite intelligent but do not live as long as the terriers.
German Shepherd (Alsatian)
American Eskimo Dog
German Shepherd Dog
Caucasian Mountain Dog
Old German Shepherd Dog
Bernese Mountain Dog
Appenzeller Mountain Dog (Cattle Dog)
Bouvier des Flandres
Again, many of these dogs have long, oily hair coats, which are unsuitable for hot climates. All the sheepdogs are very active and attune to their owners. They love to please. They are inquisitive and brave. Furthermore, they make excellent pets for children – worrying about them constantly as they formerly worried about the sheep in their charge. Do not pick puppies from parents that are oversized or near the maximum allowable size for the breed.
Queensland Blue Heeler
American Tkundra Shepherd
Anatolian Herder (Analolian Shepherd)
Atlas Sheepdog (Aidi)
Australian Cattle Dog
Azores Cattle Dog
Dutch Shepherd Dog
English Shepherd Dog Ainu Dog
Old English Sheepdog
Old German Shepherd Dog
Sheltie (Shetland Sheepdog)
Collie (Schotse Herder)
Tervuerense Herder (Tervueren)
Polish Tatra Sheepdog
White Shepherd Dog
Karelian Bear Dog
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