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Dos and Don'ts of Getting a Family Dog

So you're ready to add a new member to your family -- a furry one -- but now you have a million more decisions to make: Should you buy from a breeder or look at a shelter? What kind of dog should you get? And how can you be sure you've found the right one? Relax. As long as you do your research, choosing a dog should be fun.

  • Do pick a pooch that fits your home. Bring a big dog into your house only if you can give him a lot of space and long walks. If you have the room and you're an active, outdoorsy family, a good choice might be a sporting breed, like a Labrador retriever, golden retriever, or cocker spaniel, or a working breed, like a bullmastiff, Bernese mountain dog, Siberian husky, or Great Dane -- all are active and friendly.
  • Don't buy a shaggy dog if you're allergic. Think about getting a nonshedding dog if you're worried about loose hairs or kids' allergies. Dogs that are regularly professionally groomed shed less in the home. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog since all dogs produce dander, but some have less than others. Good choices are bichon frises, standard poodles, or schnauzers. And if allergies are a problem, try wiping the dog's coat with a dryer sheet once a day to pick up excess dander and loose hairs.
  • Do pick a mild-mannered puppy. Pugs, boxers, bulldogs, Brittany spaniels, standard poodles, soft-coated wheaten terriers, bearded collies, and bichon frises are all sweet-tempered dogs that are likely to be more forgiving of -- and protective of -- their little owners. Some aloof dogs that don't mix as well with kids are dalmatians (don't be fooled by the movie -- they're excitable and not a great match), toy poodles, and chow chows.
  • Don't choose a herding dog if you're lazy. Border collies, corgis, and Shetland sheepdogs are very smart, obedient, and trainable, but they need a lot of mental stimulation. And keep a close eye on them when they're with your children; they may actually try to herd them and nip at their ankles.

  • Do watch out for tiny dogs. Small children and small dogs don't always mix. Breeds like Chihuahuas, miniature pinschers, and Pekingeses are very delicate, especially as puppies, and can easily be injured if your child is at all rough with them. However, toy breeds are great for families living in apartments if your children are responsible enough to treat a dog gently. Terriers are sturdier than most other small dogs, so consider a cairn terrier, Norwich terrier, Norfolk terrier, smooth fox terrier, soft-coated wheaten terrier, or a West Highland white terrier.
  • Do choose a hardy mixed breed. Purebred dogs are often susceptible to genetic diseases, while mixed breeds are less likely to have these health problems and tend to be hardier. One caveat: It can be difficult to predict the size, temperament, and personality of a mixed breed, even if you know the parents' breeds.
  • Don't discount "designer dogs." These dogs are a combination of two different breeds. Poodle mixes are in vogue nowadays because of their good temperament and nice coat. The cockapoo (cocker spaniel and poodle), yorkipoo (yorkie and poodle), and labradoodle (Labrador retriever and poodle) are all popular options.
  • Do consider a career-change dog. Ever wonder what happens to dogs that are raised to help the blind but that don't work out? Two-year-old dogs that don't graduate from guide-dog school are put up for adoption, and there are waiting lists where you can be matched with one of these well-trained pooches, usually Labs, golden retrievers, and German shepherds. This is a great option if you don't have the time or resources to train a puppy. Contact guide-dog schools in your area to find out how to apply.

  • Animal Shelter. Adopting an animal from a shelter is a great thing to do; it's much cheaper than buying from a breeder and a good idea if you're not dead set on a certain breed. Don't be surprised when the shelter representative asks you a lot of questions -- understanding your family and household is key to making a good match. A common concern is that a shelter dog could have been mistreated and might be aggressive. But most dogs are in shelters for other reasons: a divorce, a death, or a move -- or the owners just couldn't handle the responsibility. Shelter workers won't give you a dog who is known not to like children.
  • Breed-Rescue Group. If you're sure you want a particular breed but also want to do a good deed and save some money, try a breed-rescue group. You can find one in your area at petfinder.org. Breed-rescue groups collect abandoned dogs from vets, kennels, owners, and local shelters. The people who run the groups are great resources on specific breeds and you can call them with questions, even if you plan to buy from a breeder.
  • Breeder. If you don't mind spending the cash and you want a purebred puppy, a breeder is the way to go. The American Kennel Club's Web site, at akc.org, is a good place to start your search. Arrange a visit so your family can meet the breeder, the dog's parents, and the puppies, if there's a litter at the moment. The breeder should show you where the dogs live, the dogs' health clearances, and AKC registration papers. You may have to wait for a puppy.
  • Pet Shop. Generally, people who are serious about buying a puppy go to a shelter, a breed-rescue group, or a breeder. Pet shops cater to impulsive buyers. They sometimes get their dogs from mass breeding facilities (aka puppy mills), where the dogs may be housed in poor conditions. Those dogs are more likely to have health issues, and the workers are not highly knowledgeable.
  • The Internet/Classifieds. Buying a puppy directly from one of these sources is risky. The Internet can be a good way to find a breeder, but you should always meet the breeder and see the dog in person. Responsible breeders want to meet the families and are very careful to place their puppies in good homes.

According to a 2004 American Kennel Club survey, annual dog expenses average about $2,500. Expect to initially shell out:

$150 to $2,000: The initial purchase price can be your lowest or highest cost, depending on whether you go for a shelter dog or a rare purebred.

$160: The amount you're likely to spend on spaying or neutering, essential surgical procedures for puppies.

$630: The average amount dog owners lay out in the first year for vet visits, although this cost can vary depending on where you live.

$350: Expect to pay this much to cover basic supplies for your pup.

$340: Obedience training will probably cost you around this amount.

TOTAL: $1,630 to $3,480

Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the March 2006 issue of Parents magazine.