Choosing a Dog

American Pit Bull Terrier

I wanted to post about choosing a dog, since that’s something that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing your next dog. Do I want an adult or a puppy? Purebred or mixed? Long or short haired, big or small, active or couch potato?

Patterdale Terrier

Everyone has a certain ‘type’ of dog that attracts them. I’m attracted to muscular, smooth-coated dogs. Pit Bulls, Whippets, and Patterdale Terriers top my list. I also like Pharoah Hounds (or their smaller cousins, Cirneco dell’Etna), Dobermans, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Azawakhs, Italian Greyhounds, Basenjis, Jack Russell Terriers (not Parsons), and Vizslas.

But there’s a problem with looking for a specific “breed”.

The idea of breeding for specific looks didn’t come into fashion until fairly recently, in the 1800’s. Before then, dogs were bred solely for function. Dogs were bred for herding, pulling loads, guarding, hunting, or even companionship. “Breeds” came into style at the same time that eugenics became wildly popular. The idea at that time was that by selective breeding, all of the “bad” traits could be bred out, and a certain “type” could be fixed. By breeding selectively, you could create the perfect ______ (person, dog, cow, corn plant).


But there’s a problem with this type of selective breeding. To fix a type, like needs to be bred to like. The fastest way to fix type is to inbreed or line breed. We now know that this type of breeding sets you up for problems.

State fair competitions for the “fitter family” (in which four generations competed against other families for prizes) quickly fell out out style after the world learned about the atrocities committed by one of eugenic’s strongest supporters, Adolf Hitler. However, it took a little longer for the movement to slow down in the animal world.

The kicker became productivity. Farmers discovered that when their animals became too inbred, they didn’t produce as well. A COI (Coefficient of Inbreeding) score tells the casual observer how inbred an animal is. The higher the score, the more inbred the animal. A 12.5% score would result from a half brother to half sister mating, or grandparent to grandchild. A 25% score would result from a parent to child mating. The famers discovered that scores above 5% resulted in lowered productivity. With each percent increase, a cow’s milk production drops and the age at which she freshens (becomes able to give milk) rises. Chickens produce fewer eggs. Racehorses become slower.


Where do dogs fit in? Most purebred dogs are very heavily inbred. The Jack Russell Terrier club, which does NOT have a closed stud book and which is the only club I’ve heard of that has a rule regarding how inbred a dog can be, does not register dogs with a COI of above 16%. Dogs with COI of 12% are common, and it is exceedingly rare to find a purebred dog with a COI lower than the 5% cutoff common in the livestock world. The majority of registries have closed stud books and do not allow outcrosses, which means that with each generation the COI becomes higher since not every dog in each generation is bred. This is further helped along by the “popular sire effect,” in which a champion dog covers as many bitches as possible.

Health and temperament problems have become a real problem in the dog world. Boxers have hearth problems. Labs have hip dysplasia. Bull Terriers (which just 100 years ago still had normal skulls) are prone to obsessive compulsive disorder. Dobermans suck their flanks, creating open wounds. Pugs can’t breathe. Corgis and Dachshunds have back problems. Even supposedly “healthy” breeds have a laundry list of genetic tests that responsible breeders must run before allowing their dogs to mate, since in such very inbred animals a 100% healthy animal can be the exception rather than the rule. Many dogs carry one recessive gene for some disorder, and responsible breeders must take care to not cross a carrier with another carrier.

Doberman Pinscher

So, if one can’t rely on choosing a breed, how do you go about choosing a dog? I plan to explore this topic more, including what the Kennel Clubs need to do to save dogs and reverse the damage we’ve done to them, how to choose a good breeder, how to choose a good shelter or rescue dog, and more about my own plans for my next dog. I promise a Layla update soon as well! In the meantime, I’m curious to hear from you. How did you choose your current dog(s)? Why did you choose the dog you did, and did you research the breeder or rescue group prior to getting your dog? Do you know anything about your dog’s lines (bonus credit for purebred dog owners if you can tell me your dog’s COI!)?

(all photos borrowed from the United Kennel Club breed standards)



Filed under Breeding, Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Genetics, Other Dogs, Rescue

6 responses to “Choosing a Dog

  1. Wow, fascinating post, Sara! I cannot wait to read more about this. Although we’ve decided to be a one-dog household for awhile, I do wonder what kind of dog will be in my future… I have some ideas of what I’m looking for in a dog, but mostly I just want Maisy.

    I didn’t choose Maisy so much as she chose me… which is to say, it was completely impulsive, not at all thought out, and utterly irresponsible. I don’t usually talk about it because I’m ashamed of her background- she’s from a pet store. I was shopping at a strip mall with a friend, who wanted to look at puppies just for fun. I really didn’t want to, but agreed anyway. She was cooing over the dogs, I was being a general party-pooper, and then… I saw Maisy.

    I had to have her. I didn’t know what breed she was (“corgi-poo”), or even what the heck that meant. I didn’t know where she came from, or how old she was, or if she’d fit into my life. In fact, looking back on it, had I chosen a dog that matched my lifestyle, I would have never in a million years chosen her.

    But the moment I saw her, it was as if she could speak. “Hi! You’re going to take me home today. My name is Maisy.” It must have been fate speaking, because even though she is not at all the dog I would have picked, she’s been perfect for me. Instead of a dog that matched my lifestyle, I’ve had to change my lifestyle to match her.

    Although I’ve never regretted that impulsive, life-changing decision, I wouldn’t repeat it, either. I am fully aware of the fact that I supported a cruel, inhumane industry, and that by doing so, I encouraged a puppy mill to breed more dogs like Maisy- who, though perfect to me, has behavioral and medical issues that would have likely been a death sentence for her in another home.

    • Crystal, I’ve often heard it said that, “you don’t always get the dog you want, but you always get the dog you need.” I’m sure that you needed Maisy, and I know for sure she needed you. It really makes you pause to imagine what sort of home she could have ended up with if you didn’t take her, doesn’t it?

      My first dog was almost a puppy mill/pet store dog as well. I worked at a pet store when I was 17, and was naive enough to believe the owner when he told me that the puppies they sold did not come from puppy mills. He was technically correct: they came from a large broker (who got them from puppy mills). I fell head-over-heels in love with a tiny 8-week-old Basenji puppy about 8 months after I was hired.

      My family didn’t have a dog at that time, and my parents had agreed that I could pick one out. I think I fit the profile of someone most rescues would not adopt to a “t”! Luckily a local rescue gave us a shot, and I ended up with Duke instead of the Basenji – although I’ve always wondered what happened to the little guy.

      I found out a couple months later that the pet store did indeed sell puppy mill dogs after a small Pomeranian died of distemper. I think she was probably only 6-7 weeks old. It broke my heart. I’ll always remember sitting in back trying to force-feed her as she threw up everything I got down her, her little body shaking and cold. They didn’t take her to the vet until it was too late.

      I took a closer look at the papers that the puppies came with, and noticed that frequently all 4 or 5 puppies (different breeds) that came in at once were from the same breeders. I quit as soon as I put the pieces together, and went to work for the shelter we’d adopted Duke from.

      Have you heard about the demos they’ve been doing up in the Cities at some of the pet stores that support puppy mills? You and Maisy should totally go!

      • Regarding the “you always get the dog you need” idea- I sort of touched on that here:

        Maisy has absolutely been the perfect dog for me. I have learned so much about training in general because of her, but also about behavior modification, which in turn, has helped me professionally. She’s also brought me into contact with people like you- relationships that I’m thankful for, and would have never formed otherwise.

        That story about the pomeranian is just so heartbreaking. That is not at all the way I believe animals should be cared for, but I’m preaching to the choir here.

        I’ll have to look into those demos. I saw some people outside the store where I got Maisy awhile ago, with signs and such. I should have talked to them, but I felt like such a hypocrite.

  2. Hi this is wilma, such a nice post for genetic disorders. I agree with Crystal that comment…..

  3. shirley

    from what i gather, while inbreeding can be problematic, out-crossing isn’t a straightforward ‘cure’ for genetic diseases sometimes intensified by inbreeding. so i’m not sure how i feel about COI measurements themselves to inform me about a certain dog’s health/soundness….

    have you read this particular post on the matter?

    i also like to read these breeder’s posts on genetic issues of their breed of dog:

    my current dog came from a shelter, and she’s some type of pit looking thing. i had little to no knowledge about dogs at the time i chose her, all i knew was that i wanted to adopt a ‘needy’ dog – older (5yrs+), maybe not as ‘cute’ as some, and probably not a popular breed or type…and while she is a pit, and being in a kill shelter certainly counted as needy, she was also beautifully built, barely 2yrs old, and as cute as any dog i’d ever seen.

    but what really got me was her connectedness with people, and how happy she was/is to interact with them – even when marrow bones are involved! it’s hilarious to watch her step between her favorite persons and a tasty treat, unable to decide whether to eat the thing or continue to celebrate with everyone in attendance that she’s gotten such a great prize. so i think that’s what i’ll always look for in a dog – i don’t have any particular job in mind for my future dog(s) except as companions, so i can’t think of other characteristics i’d look for..

  4. Pingback: What the Dog Heard: On Discovering Words of Power & the Power of Words | Lessons From Layla

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s