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Unconditional Love

Once hunters and protectors, today's dogs have been promoted to family members. here's how to choose, train and love a dog
Stacey C. Rivera
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

(continued from page 1)

Getting a dog, like making any other major purchase, requires extensive research. Purchasing a dog that doesn't fit your lifestyle can be disastrous for both of you. Reliable information abounds in books, periodicals, on the Internet and from nonprofit groups. Dog owners, not unlike new parents, love to talk about their pets, and in most cases are very knowledgeable. Several Internet chat rooms allow you to pick the brain of owners. On some Web sites veterinary experts field questions.

In addition, many veterinarians will meet with you before you purchase a dog to educate you about responsible ownership. Dog shows are a great place to do research because you can meet the animals and get a sense of their temperament. In most cases you can speak with a breeder who will know not only the genetic traits of a line, but also whether the dogs are friendly and active or domineering and unaffectionate.  

Finding the right pet is not all research, however. "There is some chemistry that happens between a person and an animal," says Hawk. "I see this a lot when people come through our shelter. They may be looking for a specific breed and they just won't bond with the dog--there is just not that click--but another person will see the dog and wham, love the dog."  

The first thing to consider is: Why do you want a dog? As a companion or to guard the house? Because the kids are nagging for a pet or because, as a single person, you want a friendly face to come home to? The answers to these questions will affect your choice. Then consider your lifestyle. Is it stable? Are you home regular hours or do you travel often? Do you have a lot of time to play with and exercise a pet? Are you an active or sedentary person? Are you or anyone in your home allergic? Do you own other pets? What kind of a space do you live in? Is there a backyard or are you a city dweller? Can you afford dog food as well as regular veterinary and grooming visits?  

According to the American Kennel Club, which has been registering purebred dogs since 1909, the six most popular dog breeds in 1998 were the Labrador retriever, golden retriever, German shepherd, rottweiler, dachshund and beagle. Consistently among the top 10, these breeds have enjoyed periods of popularity that reflect what is happening in popular culture.

In 1922, for instance, German shepherds became the top AKC-registered dog after Rin Tin Tin became a movie star. And, three years after Charles Schulz introduced Snoopy to the world, the beagle began a seven-year stint as the top breed. Popular culture has also influenced the popularity of other breeds over the years. In 1998, for example, the audacious Taco Bell Chihuahua inspired enough people to purchase the miniature pups that Chihuahua registrations broke the top 10 list of popular dog breeds for the first time.  

Currently 147 breeds are registered with the AKC, which breaks them down into seven categories based on the function for which the dog was originally bred. The sporting group contains dogs that were designed to assist hunters, and includes pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers. The hound group includes canines that pursue and catch their quarry by sight and scent and guide the hunter's way. The working group, which comprises human-service dogs, includes guard, sledding and rescue breeds. The terrier group includes dogs that kill rodents and vermin and have the ability to dig. The toy group includes some of the more ancient breeds that function mainly as companions due to their diminutive size. The herding group consists of dogs that control the movements of other animals, such as sheep or cattle. The nonsporting group is the most diverse group because many of its breeds defy categorization.  

Although some species have similar purposes, they do not always have similar personality traits; ultimately, it is a dog's demeanor that will make or break a good owner-pet relationship. For example, the rottweiler and the Saint Bernard are members of the working group; however, whereas the rottweiler is generally domineering and stubborn, the Saint Bernard is easygoing and patient.  

In his 1998 book Why We Love The Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality, Stanley Coren offers an alternative seven-group classification system, based not on function but on human personality traits. He proposes that dogs fall into the following categories: friendly (affectionate and genial), protective (territorial and dominant), independent (personable and strong-willed), self-assured (spontaneous and sometimes audacious), consistent (self-contained and home-loving), steady (good-natured and tolerant) or clever (observant and trainable). According to Coren, by evaluating your own personality, you can better know if the dog that best suits you is one that will run you around the park, or curl up next to you on the couch while you watch television, or be content to sit quietly across the room while you read the paper. (See sidebar on page 107.)  

You must also choose whether to buy from a breeder or to adopt from a shelter, which will offer a variety of dogs, including mixed breed, purebred and mature pets. Though purebred dogs offer behavioral predictability because genetic characteristics are consistent, dangers exist. In an effort to weed out unwanted genetic disorders such as eye disease, breeders may inbreed dogs. While this usually produces desirable outcomes, it sometimes creates negative effects.

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