How to Choose a Dog


English Setter Bred to cover a lot of area when hunting, the English setter is a lively dog that loves to hunt and run. This is especially true of dogs from field lines. See more in our Dogs image gallery! Keith Barraclough/DCL

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Even though dogs are man's best friend, it helps when you choose your friends wisely. Think about how a new dog is going to change your life. He or she is going to take up your time and energy with feeding, grooming, exercise, and play. Dogs are social animals and they'll want and need to spend quality time with you. So it's important that you and the dog are a good match.

There are myriad types of dogs to choose from -- not just various breeds but mixed-breeds (or mutts), as well -- and many sources for dogs, such as kennels, shelters, or even your own front porch if a stray wanders up. So you can't just make your decision based on a cute face. What if you choose a dog that is too young or too old for your household? What kind of credentials do you want your dog to have? Where do you begin to look? This article will offer guidelines to help you pick a dog that's happy and healthy and right for your personal circumstances. The following sections outline the important points you should consider before looking for that next family member.

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  • Adopting a PuppyPuppies are usually adorable, so they tug at your heartstrings. But it can be difficult to foretell a dog's personality when he's a few weeks old, not to mention whether he'll grow into a healthy adult. In this section, we will tell you things you should look for when perusing potential puppies. Also, adopting a puppy that is too young can be a serious problem. We will also let you know when you should adopt a young dog.
  • Adopting an Adult DogFor many people, the known quantity of an adult dog is the way to go. But adult dogs, unlike puppies, come with their own set of ingrained habits and behaviors. As challenging as it can be to train a puppy, a stubborn adult dog can be just as much of a headache. We will let you know all of the pros and cons of adopting an adult dog and how to choose the best dog for you and your family.
  • Adopting a Purebred DogThere are dog owners who prefer purebreds, possibly because they're in love with a particular breed or are considering showing the dog or breeding it themselves. Knowing a dog's entire ancestry can be an added joy to ownership, and, in some cases, may even open the door to entering your dog into competitions. We will give you all the vital information on purebred dogs, including which breeds will be the right fit for you and your home.
  • Adopting a Mixed-Breed DogFor some dog owners, a mixed breed is the way to go because they love knowing no one has a dog quite like theirs, or they like knowing they rescued a pooch from a shelter. A mixed breed can also allow you to tailor the exact height and weight of a dog that would be perfect for you. Learn all the pertinent knowledge about owning a mixed-breed dog in this section.
  • Buying a Dog From a BreederBuying a dog from a breeder will obviously be more expensive than adopting a dog from the shelter, but there are advantages. A dog obtained from a breeder comes with more security, and you can be sure that any significant problems you encounter with your puppy will be taken care of. That being said, some breeders are more reliable than others. In this section we will show you how to pick a breeder and give a list of questions you should ask before you even consider buying a dog.
  • Adopting a Dog From a ShelterWhen you adopt a dog from a shelter not only are you gaining a great companion, but you may also be saving that dog's life. Just as in buying a dog from a breeder, there are some important things you should know when taking home a dog from the shelter. In this section, you will learn how to choose the right dog and how the shelter can help you in this process.
  • How to Handle a Stray DogThere is something especially rewarding about taking in a stray dog and giving him love and care. But this sentimental act can prove regrettable if you haven't taken into account the risks of a dog with an unknown background. This section will discuss how to handle strays and the most humane approach to take if you can't give them a home.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider before bringing a dog home. Let's get started by discussing the age of your potential new best friend in the next section.

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Adopting a Puppy

Now, most people think starting off with a puppy is the best choice, but that isn't necessarily so. Raising a puppy is a labor-intensive undertaking, and it may take as long as three years for him to fully mature. Do you have young children or a full-time job? You might discover an adult dog is a better idea. You see, the best way to make sure you and your dog get off to the right start is to match up the pooch and his needs to you and your lifestyle.

No two puppies are exactly alike. Oh, some purebred litter mates may look as identical as peas in a pod, but rest assured they'll have their own individual personalities. Even if a particular breed is known for a certain kind of temperament, that's just a general trait. Each puppy will develop according to his own personality, which will also be affected by how the pup is raised and what the parents are like. In other words, you can't judge a book by its cover...and you can't judge a puppy solely by its breed or looks. If this were the case, you could get the perfect dog by mail order. Instead, you've got to take your time and use your head -- and your heart -- to make sure the dog you bring into your home is a good match. Training a puppy is no picnic, and you should take all the precautions you can.

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It's probably a good idea to start looking at puppies a few weeks before you're ready to take one home. Remember, this is a long-term relationship (lifelong, for the dog). If you find the perfect puppy on the first try, that's great, but most people have to kiss a few canine frogs before they find their four-legged Prince or Princess Charming. Don't let sudden infatuation make the decision for you: Take a good look at him or her for signs of physical problems. A clean bill of health at this early age is the good start you want to make sure your new friend stays with you for a good long time. Here are some clues to look for:

  • The eyes and nose should be clear and clean, not red or runny.
  • The puppy's coat should be clear and shiny.
  • Check the puppy's belly. All pups tend to be a little potbellied when they have a full tummy, but a puppy with a noticeably swollen belly has a good chance of harboring worms.
  • Check for discharge from the rear end and chronic coughing and sneezing.

If you're an old softie, you'll probably want to take the runt of the litter home, complete with all his frailties. Be forewarned, though -- a sickly puppy is more likely to have major health problems into adulthood, and veterinary bills can add up quickly. If you're not sure you can take on the added expense of a more needy dog, don't. There are far more healthy puppies in the world than there are good homes for them, so you'll be doing any puppy a favor by adopting him. Evaluating a pup's personality is mostly a common sense call. There's a very good chance that a bright, friendly puppy will grow up to be a bright, friendly dog, and the timid pup cowering in the corner will continue to be shy. If you buy from a breeder, you have the right to expect the puppies to be well socialized and even accustomed to children, other pets in the household, and visitors to the home. The right amount of handling, exposure to a variety of sounds and scents, and the experience of life with humans, go a long way in setting your little pooch on the road to being a friendly, well-adjusted animal companion.This means your best bet on a purebred pup is the one who grows up in the breeder's home, smack in the middle of everything -- kids, vacuum cleaners, doorbells, and pots and pans clattering in the kitchen. Steer clear of breeders who raise their dogs primarily in cages and the so-called "puppy mills" that crank out dozens of litters each year that may go straight from a cage on the farm to a cage in a store. Cage-reared puppies often don't get enough handling or exposure to new situations, and eating, sleeping, and excreting in the same small area goes against their instincts. The result can be a shy, fearful, or otherwise poorly socialized dog.A puppy who is well socialized will play happily with other puppies but take equal pleasure in climbing into your lap for a pat and a cuddle. Once that happens, try turning the little guy over on his back and cradling him like a baby. If he fights you, you're looking at either one of the dominant puppies in the litter (the belly-up posture is a submission gesture) or one of the less trustful ones. If he doesn't mind being held this way, give him a tummy rub. If he's still not complaining, you're probably going to have more of a problem convincing him you should stop.The key is to look for the puppy who's interested in you, as well as the one you're interested in. And look more than once. Dogs can change their moods just like humans, so don't let first impressions force your decision; come back again once or twice (preferably at different times of the day), and see if the same puppies react the same way.Perhaps adopting an adult dog would be a better choice for you. We'll learn all the dos and don'ts in the next section.

Adopting an Adult Dog

Although puppies are a barrel of fun and cute as the dickens, remember the wise old saying, "Age before beauty." Just because an adult dog is no longer young doesn't mean he doesn't have a world of things to offer you. Folks sometimes have the mistaken notion that if you don't raise a dog from scratch, you'll only have trouble. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, it may be easier in some ways for a tiny pup to bond with you, but there are definite advantages to the older dog. For one thing, they've settled down from puppyhood and might even have had some training already. If you've never had a puppy, you might not realize just how much energy he has. Keeping up with a puppy can be exhausting -- and you can't turn him off or send him to his room to play if you've had a hard day.

Look for the same clues for health problems as with a puppy, and ask the source of the dog if your veterinarian can examine the dog before you adopt him. If you're adopting directly from the previous owner, ask to see the dog's health records so you can check on illnesses, vaccination history, and spaying or neutering (older dogs have probably already been "fixed," which is a bonus).

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Far more so than with a puppy, an adult dog is a "what you see is what you get" proposition. Most all pups are cute, cuddly, and passive, but some will grow up and stay that way, and others will grow up to be the canine equivalent of Jesse James. An adult dog's personality is pretty much set, giving you a better handle on how well he'll fit into your household and whether or not he'll get along with any other pets. Since he's got all his adult teeth and is past the energetic phase of frantic puppy activity, a full-grown dog is less likely to do wholesale destruction and his longer attention span makes him easier to train.

If you have your heart set on a purebred, opting for an older dog may be easier than you think. There are a large number of breed rescue clubs that specialize in placing dogs of their particular breed who have been found as strays, taken from unsafe situations, or simply retired from the showing or the racetrack. Adopting a rescued stray, a retired show dog, or racing Greyhound will give you all the joys and benefits of dog ownership...and do a great favor for the dog, too. Check the classified ads in newspapers under the breed in which you are interested, contact breeders (they advertise in dog magazines), or call your local humane society for more details.

One last thought about the "secondhand" dog: A dog of any age can be trained and will adapt to -- and be a loving, loyal companion for -- a new family. You really can teach an old dog new tricks!

When you have made up your mind between a puppy and an adult dog, you then need to decide whether you prefer a mixed-breed or purebred. We'll learn about purebred dogs in the next section.

Adopting a Purebred Dog

Purebred means a dog whose ancestry can be traced back for generations through dogs with similar characteristics. The term "pedigreed" usually means a purebred dog has the paperwork to prove his breeding. Organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) run a registry of purebred dogs. If an AKC-registered male Pomeranian mates with an AKC-registered female Pomeranian, then the entire litter can be registered as purebred Pomeranians.

You might be interested in a purebred because you want a dog of a certain size or temperament, or you might have a hankering to hunt him or show him. Purebred dogs come in a variety of coat types, each of which has its own appeal. If you enjoy spending a lot of time with a dog and giving him hands-on attention, you'll probably take pleasure in a dog whose coat requires regular brushing or styling, such as the Golden Retriever, Maltese, or Poodle.

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On the other hand, if you want to spend active time with your dog, you may prefer one with a short, easy-care coat. Buying a purebred dog offers you the opportunity to acquire a dog who has been bred not only for a specific look but also for health and temperament. Quite often the parents and sometimes even the grandparents of the dog can be examined for good health and compatible personalities.

A Matter of Breeding

You name the job, and dogs have probably been bred for it. Dogs have been specifically bred for dozens of tasks over thousands of years. We developed breeds to help us hunt, herd, or guard our flocks, protect our property and family, haul heavy loads, pull sleds or carts, and even do pest control duty. We even bred them tiny to be foot warmers and flea catchers. But no matter what the dog's original purpose, people soon learned a dog's number one skill is being man's best friend.

Today, it's a rare dog who fulfills his heritage as a worker, but all those generations of breeding for specific instincts still have a powerful effect on the dog's behavior. When you decide to bring a dog into your home, it's important to consider whether his instincts will match your lifestyle. For example, the Jack Russell Terrier is a cute little pooch who keeps turning up in films, TV shows, and commercials. He's a friendly and spunky little dog, but he's a terrier, a "ground dog."

Terriers were bred to dig out burrows and even go down them after critters like rabbits and foxes. If you have a prize garden, a terrier is bound to give it an unwanted relandscaping. As long as they're breathing, they'll be digging, too. Doing a little bit of homework on the original purpose of a breed will help you figure out if it fits with your home and lifestyle -- and help avoid an unhappy ending.

When you begin the quest to find just the right dog, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What size dog do you want, and is this size compatible with your living quarters?
  • How much time can you spend exercising/training/playing with a dog?
  • What types of activities will you enjoy with your dog? Is your lifestyle active or sedentary?
  • How much can you afford to budget for a good brand of dog food?
  • Do you have a yard or access to a nearby park where your dog can play?
  • How much time and effort can you devote to grooming your dog?

Which Breed is Right for You?The American Kennel Club divides dogs into seven groups: Sporting, Working, Terrier, Toy, Hound, Herding, and Non-Sporting. These divisions give you a rough idea of which breeds to consider first. For instance, if you enjoy hiking, jogging, or watersports, one of the Sporting dogs is likely to suit you best. These include well-known breeds such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, English Springer Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, and Brittanies, as well as the lesser-known American and Irish Water Spaniels, English and Gordon Setters, the various pointing breeds, and English Cocker Spaniels.If your motivation for acquiring a dog includes protection as well as companionship, consider a Working breed such as the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer, or Standard Schnauzer. Although they tend to have gentle personalities, the size alone of a Great Dane or Newfoundland is enough to lend a feeling of security. These breeds also enjoy participating in various dog sports, such as sled-dog racing for Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, and Samoyeds, or carting for Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Saint Bernards.While Working breeds can be formidable protectors and wonderful friends, they are probably also the most independent-minded. Good, humane, consistent -- and preferably early -- obedience training is particularly important for these pooches. They are also very large dogs, so if your grocery budget is limited, you may want to consider breeds that are smaller but just as protective, such as Terriers and Toys.Terriers are well known as the farmer's best friend, keeping rats from the grain and foxes from the henhouse. These feisty dogs come in a variety of sizes, from the king-size Airedale to short-legged diggers like Cairn, Norfolk, and Norwich Terriers. The terrier propensity for barking and his protective attitude makes him a fine watchdog, but he can be a little overenthusiastic on this count, so proper training is important again. Since they come in a variety of sizes and coat types, there is a Terrier to suit just about any home.

When you think of a watchdog, a toy breed is probably the last one that leaps to mind, but size is not necessarily the only factor that qualifies a dog for this job. Toy breeds are alert, often the first to give the alarm when anyone approaches the house. Criminals admit it's a dog's bark, not his size, that deters them from breaking and entering.

Of course, the company these dogs provide is also a benefit of owning one of them. Toy dogs have been bred as companions for at least 2,000 years, and they will happily take their place in any home, large or small, as long as it contains a lap in which they can cuddle. From the Pug, a Mastiff in miniature, to the elegant Toy Poodle, it's hard to go wrong with one of these diminutive dogs.

Like the Sporting breeds, Herding breeds are suited to families with an active lifestyle. Dogs who were bred to herd are intelligent, independent, and love having a job to do. Teach them a skill, such as rounding up the family for dinner or picking up dirty laundry, and you will soon wonder how you ever did without them. Popular Herding breeds include Collies, German Shepherd Dogs, and Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties). Because they are so smart, be aware you will need to begin training early to stay one step ahead of these dogs, but the results are well worth it.

Hounds are the classics of dogdom. Among the oldest of dog types, they include the Greyhound, the Bloodhound, and the Beagle. Hounds are divided into two groups: sighthounds and scenthounds. Sighthounds are built for speed and give chase to fleet-footed prey such as hares and antelopes. Scenthounds tend to move more slowly, using their marvelously sensitive noses to track game.

However, these defining characteristics are also the source of the major drawbacks to owning a hound. A sighthound is inclined to chase anything moving -- and not stop until it stops or the dog drops. Scenthounds will likewise follow a trail to the ends of the earth. A good fence, long walks on a leash, and patient, consistent training are absolute musts. The reward for your investment is a dog with a sweet personality and variety in appearance, from the smooth grace of the Whippet to the thick-coated Nordic look of the Norwegian Elkhound.

Finally, there are the Non-Sporting breeds. These dogs don't quite fit in any other category. While they may once have served people by guarding coaches -- like the Dalmatian -- or retrieving downed waterfowl -- like the Poodle -- today they are bred strictly as companions. The Non-Sporting breeds come in a variety of sizes, coat types, and personalities, so from the laid-back Bulldog to the proud Lhasa Apso, this group contains something for everyone.

Now let's look at the benefits of adopting a mixed breed dog. We'll tell you all you need to know in the next section.

Adopting a Mixed-Breed Dog

They go by a dozen different names, and not all of them are complimentary. But whether you call them mutts, curb setters, or crossbreeds, there's one thing you can always count on about a mixed-breed dog: No two of them look alike! In fact, some owners say it makes them feel special to know no one else has a dog quite like theirs.

A mixed breed is just what it sounds like: a dog who doesn't come from a single purebred mother and father (of the same breed, that is). Sometimes mixed breeds are created by design, as with popular mixes like the Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle); Peekapoo (Pekinese and Poodle); and various retriever, German Shepherd, and poodle/terrier mixes. Otherwise, mixed breeds are just the result of nature taking its course.

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Picking a mixed-breed puppy is a more of a roll of the dice than a purebred when it comes to size and instincts. You pretty much know how big your Beagle puppy will get, that he'll want to follow his nose constantly, and that he'll bay instead of bark. If you know the breeds of the mutt puppy's parents, you'll have a good idea what to expect.

For instance, a Golden Retriever/German Shepherd mix will most likely be a good-size dog, with a potential weight range of 60 to 90 pounds and a fun-loving yet protective personality. Otherwise, you'll just have to be surprised. Some of the most special stories about dogs come from owners whose mixed-breed pups turned out to be something totally unexpected.

If you're not looking for a dog to show or work, or if you don't have your heart set on a particular breed, you can't go wrong with a mutt. Crossbreeds actually tend to have fewer of the health problems that may pop up in some of their purebred counterparts. What's more, the animal shelters are overflowing with mixed-breed dogs. Most purebreds can count on finding a home, but when you adopt a mixed-breed dog, you're giving him a new lease on life.

Now that you know the type of dog you want, it's time to determine where you will get it. In the next section, we will learn about buying a dog from a breeder.

Buying a Dog From a Breeder

Once you know you want a purebred puppy or dog and you have figured out the right breed for you and your home, the next step is to find a reputable breeder. Good breeders are committed to improving the breed. They are careful about breeding; have healthy, well-cared for dogs; belong to dog clubs or breeder organizations; and usually enter their dogs in shows. They try to eliminate health problems by screening their dogs for genetic disease. They keep current on information regarding vaccinations, canine medicine, and genetics.

To find a good breeder, ask your veterinarian or other dog owners for referrals. Breeders often advertise their dogs in such magazines as the American Kennel Club Gazette, Dog Fancy, and Dogs USA, all of which can be found nationwide. Attending a dog show is another good way to find breeders. Talk to breeders there, after they have shown their dogs (before competition, they will be too busy preparing the dog for the ring).

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Good breeders know their breed inside and out. They enjoy talking about their dogs, and they're willing to take the time to educate people who are new to the breed. Tell breeders the type of dog you're looking for -- one who is quiet, active, friendly, easy to groom, good with kids, and so forth -- so they can tell you if their breed suits your needs. Ask about a breed's personality and temperament. What are its grooming requirements? Does it have special dietary needs? Is it accustomed to children or other pets? What genetic problems affect the breed?

If you meet a breeder you like, make an appointment to see the dogs in their home setting. As you examine the dogs and facilities, talk to the breeder about standards and practices. An honest, responsible breeder will appreciate your concern and won't be offended by any of the following questions:

  • How long have you been breeding dogs?
  • How often do you breed your dogs?
  • Why did you choose to breed these two dogs?
  • Before you bred them, did you screen the dogs for health problems common to the breed?
  • Can you show me the results of those tests?
  • Do puppies come with a health guarantee or a veterinary health certificate?
  • Do you belong to a breed club and subscribe to its code of ethics?
  • Can your dogs perform the tasks for which they were bred (if it's pertinent to the breed in question)?
  • Have your dogs earned any titles (conformation championship, obedience titles, tracking titles, herding titles)?
  • Can you provide references from other buyers?
  • What are the positives and negatives of owning this breed?

A good breeder will question you just as carefully. The questions she asks may seem personal, but her intentions are good: to ensure her puppies go to loving, lifelong homes. A breeder may also require you to sign a contract agreeing to certain standards of care such as keeping the dog in a fenced yard or spaying or neutering a pet-quality dog. Some breeders withhold a puppy's registration papers until they receive proof the puppy has been altered. The breeder may also require you to return the dog if there ever comes a time when you can't keep it. In return for meeting such stringent requirements, you should expect to receive a healthy, well-socialized puppy at a fair price, as well as ongoing advice from the breeder regarding its care, grooming, and feeding.Finding such a paragon of a breeder is not always easy. There is no canine version of the Better Business Bureau. Anyone can hang out a sign proclaiming herself a dog breeder. As the buyer, it is your responsibility to screen the breeder carefully to ensure she follows reputable, responsible breeding practices. When you visit the breeder, take note of kennel size, exercise areas, cleanliness, state of repair, ventilation, lighting, and overall appearance. Are bedding and elimination areas clean? Is there an isolation area for sick dogs, show dogs, and newborns? Does the breeder feed a high-quality food, or are her animals raised on a generic diet? Is fresh water readily available? Does the breeder keep good records (including proof of vaccinations), store medications properly, and take steps to prevent worm infestation? In addition, rate the condition of the dogs and the socialization of the puppies. In the end, your own good judgment is what counts most.A breeder is not the only option, however. Most people have a lot of luck adopting a dog from a shelter. We'll tell you what you need to know in the next section.

Adopting a Dog From a Shelter

When you adopt a dog from your local animal shelter or humane society -- whether the dog you pick is a true "secondhand" pooch or a stray puppy -- the odds are you'll not only be gaining a fine companion, you'll be saving his life in the bargain.

The same rules of preparation apply to the mixed breed adopted from the shelter as the purebreed purchased from the breeder. Sit down and figure out exactly what you want -- and what you can handle -- in a dog. That way, when you go to the shelter, the staff will be able to direct you to the dogs who fit your needs, and you won't be overwhelmed by too many numbers. Before you go to the shelter, it's a good idea to have a family meeting and make an actual list of the coat type, size, color, and so on, that you agree on. It's very easy to get sidetracked when a couple of dozen dogs are yipping and pawing at you through the bars of their cages.

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Next, everybody in the household should pile into the car for the ride to the shelter. On the way, review how the selection process works. You should call your local shelters first for details on their specific procedures, but you can probably count on something like this: First, walk through the shelter to look at all the dogs and get an idea of who's available. Next, walk through again. Take your time. Have family members write down individually the one or two dogs they'd pick to adopt. Finally, walk through one last time, looking at all the dogs who were selected and comparing them to the list to see if they meet the criteria. If a dog doesn't match your needs, mark him off the list. Take your list of finalists and ask a shelter employee for more information about them.

Shelter employees see the dogs every day and should be able to tell you about a dog's personality and habits. If a dog was turned in by his owners, the shelter probably has more detailed information about his health and personality than about a dog found as a stray. Often, secondhand shelter dogs come with important background information: whether they get along with children or other animals, if they prefer men or women, and the type of home the dog was used to. Matching the dog's previous experience to your current situation can help a lot. For instance, some dogs may have a difficult time fitting into a home with very young children unless they came from a family with children. Look for the same health clues you would if you were buying a puppy: clear eyes, no coughing or sneezing, firm stools. Ask if the dog has been spayed or neutered, dewormed, and vaccinated.

Once you've heard what shelter personnel have to say, ask to meet the dog or dogs left on the list so you can make your choice. Don't forget, a dog in a shelter is away from its family, maybe for the first time. The loss of his home and the unfamiliar surroundings of the shelter are bound to affect the dog's behavior. Often, shelter enclosures are small, with little room for the dog to walk around. It's natural for a dog in this situation to be frightened, depressed, or withdrawn, so take these things into account when you make your decision.

Arrange to take the dog into a visiting room or to an outdoor area so you can get to know each other on a one-on-one basis. In this setting, the dog may loosen up, giving you a truer picture of his personality. Walk him around on leash. Does he pay attention when you switch directions? A dog who is willing and attentive is likely to be easier to train.

Whether you choose a puppy or an adult, look for a dog who is healthy and responsive. If the dog is friendly in a shelter environment, he's likely to be friendly in your home, too. But remember, a confined dog wants out, and even a somewhat shy pooch can be very solicitous when you walk past his cage. Take your time. Your decision is an important one.

If you prefer to own that cute stray that keeps hanging around your apartment or home, it's important to do it the right way. Adopting a stray can be challenging but rewarding. In the next section we will review what you should do.

Handling a Stray Dog

Sometimes you don't choose a dog -- he chooses you. Stray dogs seem to have a sixth sense about which homes will offer them a welcome.

When a dog shows up on your doorstep, it may seem like fate, but take a deep breath and evaluate the situation just as you would if you were purchasing from a breeder or adopting from a shelter. Is your family ready for a dog? Is the dog right for you and your household? Do you have the time and resources to care for the dog? Is the dog healthy?

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Approach a stray dog cautiously until you can be sure he's friendly and healthy. If he's wearing a collar and tags, you might be able to give his story a quick and happy ending by returning him to his family. (If you find he'll let you handle him safely, you can also check for registration tattoos, usually found inside the ear, on the inner thigh, or on the belly.) Unfortunately, most strays have no identification.

You can put up signs and place ads, but you're going to have the dog in your home in the meantime, and many strays are never claimed. If you decide you are interested in giving the stray dog a home, your first step should be to take him to your veterinarian for a complete checkup and vaccinations. Only then should you bring the dog into your home, especially if you have other dogs who could catch any diseases or parasites the stray might have.

If you live out in the country, you're probably aware of the many dogs who are dumped off there by their owners in the hope they will find a place to stay. Unfortunately, dogs are not capable of fending for themselves. If you can't keep a stray who comes to your door, the kindest thing to do is to take him to your local animal shelter, where he'll be fed and cared for until he can find a new home.

We've covered all the major questions you need to answer before bringing home a dog. If you follow our advice closely, you'll greatly increase the likelihood of a wonderful match between pooch and family.