How do you pick a dog who is good with kids and likes the right amount of activity for your family?
October 19, 2011 8:37 AM   Subscribe

What kind of dog should our family consider? Or, how do we pick out a mutt that is right for our family?

Our family is considering adopting a dog. We got our last dog, a mutt, from the SPCA, she was five when we got her, and she was an awesome dog. But it was pure chance - we literally picked her out because she was in the paper.

Our general requirements are: good with kids (we have a toddler and hopefully more one day). Medium-to-large in size. Not hyper. I would like a dog that would like to walk/jog with me on a daily basis, but not one that needs to be run into the ground every day to behave.

We'd love to get another adult dog from the pound, but I'm unsure of what we should be looking for to meet those requirements (and mostly the safe-around-kids). (Adult because I feel like those dogs have a harder time getting adopted, and also because I feel like it would be hard to deal with puppy-ness right now). I'd consider a breed specific rescue if that makes any of the factors easier to control. I realize that probably we should go to the pound and play with some dogs, but I'm hesitant to take our daughter there until we have a dog in mind, because she will, no doubt, want ALL THE DOGGIES to come home with us and I will have a hard time saying no!
posted by dpx.mfx to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've chosen two great, adult dogs from the shelter and have helped family and friends choose dogs at the same shelter. My general pattern is that I look for a dog I think is cute, ignore everything I know about the breed(s), and take out the dog to play with it. If the dog immediately starts playing with me and jumps all over me without checking me out or looking for any cues, it's not really the dog for me. If the dog is friendly but clearly looking to me for cues as to what it should do next, I usually go with my hunch that it'll be a good dog who will be attentive and somewhat easily trained. Then I check whether it lets me touch its paws, tail, muzzle, etc. Also, see what the dog does if you sit down near it and don't touch it or address it. Does it lay down near you? Does it stand near you and wait? Or does it crawl into your lap and lick you all over? Choose according to your preference.

The family and friends who have ignored this advice have generally wound up with lovely but somewhat unmanageable dogs who jump all over kids.
posted by pineappleheart at 8:48 AM on October 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Also, I'd say that you should go once with your partner to check out the dogs and play with them without your toddler if possible. I know that I wouldn't be able to resist a cute toddler asking to play with all the dogs, either, so maybe you could choose a couple of candidates and then bring your daughter back to ask her what she thinks of them. That way you can have eliminated some of the more hyper dogs that could knock your daughter over or potentially hurt her by accident.
posted by pineappleheart at 8:52 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Our dogs are medium size (35-40 lbs), like to run and are awesome around kids. They're German Shepherd - Chow - Collie mixes. Training is essential, don't skimp on this.
posted by desjardins at 8:56 AM on October 19, 2011

If the shelter says Anything about the dog being a little nervous, I would choose a different dog. I love rescues, but my brother's family got their hearts broken by a dog that was just Too nervous to have around (non-family) kids (she bit several after a few months of settling in).

Go by yourself and watch to see how the dog interacts with you and other dogs on a walk. See if it knows any commands or pays attention to you. Be sure to tell the center that you have small kids and will be around lots of other small kids, so you need a very kid-friendly dog. Listen Carefully to what they have to say about the dog to get a sense for whether it's a good fit.
posted by ldthomps at 9:06 AM on October 19, 2011

They're not for everyone, but I have a rescued greyhound and love her to pieces. She is the most chill dog, which is a breed trait. They seem big, but they are so unassuming that they don't really take up that much space. Other pros: minimal shedding, relatively quiet, generally healthy, huge greyhound support community. Your local greyhound rescue would be happy to help you find just the right dog for your family and lifestyle.
posted by jrichards at 9:29 AM on October 19, 2011

I am of the opinion that breed/behavior stereotypes aren't worth much. One of the sweetest dogs I've met is a pit bull. One of the most laid-back dogs I've met is a chihuahua. Almost any dog can become snappish or otherwise problematic in a sufficiently strange and overstimulating environment (eg, lots of new people).

For whatever it' worth, I grew up with a lot of dogs that could all be considered hard to manage in one way or another (probably because of their almost complete lack of training, which was not their fault), but not one ever snapped at my sisters or me—so I'd draw a clear distinction between a dog that's a handful and one that's dangerous.

Other than that, I think ldthomps' advice is good.
posted by adamrice at 9:29 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

pineappleheart gives great advice. Getting to know the personalities of your doggy candidates will help you make a much more confidence decision. There's a section in How to be your Dog's Best Friend on dog personality dimensions that I found very helpful in assessing how I could help my own dog. Let me pull it out for you...

Personality refers to the particular canine temperament that your dog manifests. Broadly understood, this includes genetically determined behavior as well as behavior that has been shaped by your dog's particular enviornment. For example, all dogs possess a number of instincts, or drives, which strongly influence they interact with the world, and in turn respond to training.

They then go on to describe the three drives:

- Prey drive is related to killing/eating, like chasing a squirrel or shaking a rope toy vigorously. Dogs with high prey drive are hard to train because they are easily distracted by moving objects. On the other hand, they are easy to exercise because they typically love fetch.

-Pack drive involves social behavior related to your dog's being part of a pack, including sexual, parental, and play behavior. High pack drive makes a dog highly trainable, as these dogs are willing to work as a team and are eager to please.

-Defense drive includes fighting/fleeing behaviors. A dog with strong fight instincts is obviously not the dog for your family, they need a strong leader and children (typically) can't provide that. A dog with high defense can also be a challenge to train, as you have to keep your training positive and upbeat and avoiding all force. High defense dogs are often fear biters.

From your description, it sounds like you want a dog with moderate energy, high pack drive, low defense drive, and low-to-moderate prey drive. If you can get a sense of these drives in the dogs you visit, you'll have a much better idea of where their strengths and weaknesses are likely to lie. To test prey drive, bring a rope and a ball along with you. If the dog immediately focuses on the toy to the exclusion of all else, they probably have high prey drive. Pack drive can be assessed with pineappleheart's methods.

When you take the dog out of the kennel (keeping in mind this is a highly stressful environment), see how they interact with the other dogs. Do they bark? Growl? Ignore them? That can give you an idea of agressive behavior. How they interact with the kids will tell you a lot, too. Besides the ball, bring along a treat and see how motivated they are toward food. High motivation toward food will help you train them as they will want to work for treats.

I can't recommend the New Skete books enough, by the way. I bought their book because my own dog has been displaying some aggression toward strangers and using their techniques I have significantly decreased her fear of strangers in only a month or so.
posted by zug at 9:32 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

My answer is almost exactly what I posted here. Get a foster dog from a rescue in your area. The dog will be well-known to the foster family and the rescue will work with you on home visits, sleepovers, finding the right dog.

Another option - if your pound/SPCA has a Train to Adopt program, that would also be a great way to choose a dog. These programs take certain dogs in the pound and give them obedience training and more handling than your average shelter dog gets.

And here are my two lovely, sweet mutts, adopted from a local rescue: Mutt #1 and Mutt #2.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:35 AM on October 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

My feeling on dogs and kids is that it really works best if they're raised together. I know you don't want a puppy right now and your reasons for adopting an adult dog are wonderful but I think you might want to reconsider or at least think about a younger dog or an adolescent. I would definitely ask the shelter people if any of the dogs came from a household with children and start there. Dealing with kids is difficult for a lot of dogs and an adult dog who has never interacted with them might have a lot of trouble adjusting. I think you'd be better off with a young, flexible dog who can adapt to the special place kids hold in a household.

I got my dog Toby, a shepherd mix, as a puppy when I was pregnant with my second child. He was raised right along with the kids in a household that often included tons and tons of children and he was totally, always, wonderful with them. Now my children are grown and of my three dogs, only one remembers being around kids. Frankly, he's the only one I'd completely 100% trust in a house full of small children. I don't mean that the others would be aggressive, it's more that they wouldn't really know how to act and the relationship would never be all that it could be. They're just not used to kids and they don't quite understand why these - creatures - are not acting like either adult humans or puppies; therefore, they tend to hide when confronted with children. Granted, these are just my dogs, but my experience has always been that puppies and adolescent dogs can adjust more easily.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:46 AM on October 19, 2011

I would start looking at the shelters around you. The one I volunteered at up here (and where I got my puppy) does behavioral evaluations and note whether the dogs are good with kids or not. They do nervousness tests and jumpy tests and a whole bunch else that the put into noting what age range the dog would be good with. Find a shelter that does the same, then take out the dogs that fit with having small children and see if they fit with your personality. Shelters often can answer how good the dog would be with kids for you, so no need to stress about that unless you find that all the shelters around you aren't good. I'm very pro-mutt myself and have had shelter dogs all my life (since I was a baby) and my kids will be the same way.
posted by katers890 at 9:50 AM on October 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, these are helpful. Mygothlaundry, I've thought about that and it's a fair point. We'll consider it again when the time is imminent, I suppose.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:54 AM on October 19, 2011

I would steer a family with a toddler away from a greyhound. They are very fragile dogs. Tiny, thin bones, easily broken.

They are also sight hounds, which means they chase things. Squirrels, thrown balls. You do not want a dog that has a high breed risk of darting into traffic.

Yes, for the most part they are some incredible couch potato dogs. But when they are running, they are running. They are also fairly temperature sensitive, so taking them for long summer day outings involves some logistics, and they kind of need comfy beds, again because they're bony.

When adopting a dog, of any sort, make sure you can bring it home for a few days to "test run." The dog has likely gotten comfortable in the shelter if it's been there a while. Your home will be a new environment, and it's important to get a feeling for how a dog behaves with new stuff.

If you can get a dog that already obeys basic commands like sit and stay, so much the better. But definitely, absolutely, take the whole family to obediance training. My friend's toddler son (not quite two) tells their dog to "go lay down," and she obeys. "Off" and "drop it" are also pretty critical commands for a family with a child. (Nothing like watching a dog excitedly shred a kid's lovey.)
posted by bilabial at 10:12 AM on October 19, 2011

This might seem like a funny thing to think about, and I'll get to my point, I promise...

We lost our beloved (shelter) dog of ten years just as our daughter turned one and a half. She barely remembers her, and only knows her from stories, really. I waited a year and a half beyond that before I started hunting around on rescue and shelter sites, and eventually found a dog being given up by a family on Kijiji. She was cute! I corresponded with the family for about three weeks, and read up on the breed, asked questions galore and thought I made a great decision. I chose her based on my desire to have a dog again, the need for the right sized beast in our busy household at a good age (2), the breed's and her general temperament, the fact she'd been trained, and she'd been raised with kids and cats and other dogs, and a bajillion other factors. It was like a rescue, only between families.

I thought I did everything right - but I did not fall in love with her. Still haven't. I do love her, it's just that she's "just the dog" and not the devoted companion I used to have. We don't have the connection my old dog and I had. Maybe it's because of the kid, but I do believe it's her. She's just not that into me. It's not so bad - her breed can be a little aloof, which is fine with me too as it works in our favour. She's not utterly devoted to us either, and will happily take off without a backward glance at the mere flicker of a squirrel's tail or nap when I settle down to work so there's no guilt about vacations or time out of the house. I've tried to keep her trained, and I take good care of her, but some of the breed (Basset Hound) characteristics are really, really not my favourite things, as it turns out. And all the reading in the world doesn't help prepare for what it's really like. But, let's just say, I'm relieved that they don't have a terribly long lifespan (my in-laws have one awful little biting beast that's almost twenty and still going strong), and while I am joking about already having signed the DNR, I'll say that we'll remember her fondly and won't um... go to extreme measures.

So, my point is, that our timing is going to work out so that my family got a good dog for her young childhood. A dog that behaves well enough, and that she could play with and love and that we feel she is safe with. We gave a dog a good home for that time, and love and good care. We have a few years to go too, we hope, before it's time to say goodbye. Our kid's had a few little griefs under her belt too, in other small pets and extended family members, so when it's time, we can all deal with it a little better.

That said, and what is the rest of the point, is that I am also looking forward to something I haven't had since I was a kid - someday, a (responsibly gotten) puppy. My kid will get to enjoy a little needle-teethed pee-and-cedar-chip smelling wiggly softnfuzzy puppy-bellied puppeh too, while she's young enough that it's a big treat and old enough to help. It'll be a good time in our lives, when she's in school enough for us to have a routine and before crazy teenagerhood hits us. I know a hard time will come then when and if she leaves for school and leaves an old dog who loves her behind - my mom said I broke our family dog's heart when I moved out - but the dog will be a comfort to me then, too.

So, my suggestion is to find a good dog from good people who just have to give one up. Or, a foster family or rescue with an older dog whose history they know. Take time, go back and forth and think well. First though, try to fall in love with the dog, because it makes all the trying stuff easier. But if there's any way possible, look ahead to how old the dog and kids are going to be at various points in life. Having a kid was a bit of a crapshoot, and then was hard to have an old, sick dog with a toddler, and both needed so much from me - but I think we have our timing right this time we have a good dog for us for now, and still some opportunity to have another doggy love in time.
posted by peagood at 10:39 AM on October 19, 2011

Most (all?) shelters will give you a limited time in which to decide whether or not to keep a dog. Let your daughter know that you'll be babysitting a dog for 2 days. If you don't like it, take it back and 'babysit' another. If you do like it, tell your daughter it's decided to stay.

Also, I agree that breeds often get a bum rap that's perpetuated by (too-often) bad owners. My pit/greyhound acts nothing like a stereotypical pit bull or a greyhound. She's gentle and friendly and great with kids and cats and other dogs, and very, very durable.

So make a list of physical traits you want (size, hair length, etc.) and head to the shelter.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:50 AM on October 19, 2011

How do you pick a dog who is good with kids and likes the right amount of activity for your family?

You do what I did! You see a dog on PetFinder, go to the advertised adoption event to check out the dog, find out that one has been adopted already, see a different dog who is really chill and sweet, talk to the dog's foster person, and take that dog home.

It's been a little over three weeks and Emery is just the most wonderful dog. My 11-year-old daughter keeps saying we won the dog lottery. Enough time has passed that his annoying habits have come out (he has a high prey drive but is, oddly, not interested in our cats; outside time can be tricky with the squirrels running about) but they're easily managed. He came to us housebroken and crate trained, and is happy both taking long walks or snuggling on the couch with us. I wouldn't have known any of his backstory if the foster mom hadn't told me everything and I definitely didn't have the patience to house-or-crate-train a puppy/dog.

Check out some local fostering rescues and be up-front with them on what you're looking for. We couldn't have asked for a better dog.
posted by cooker girl at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2011

I adopted a rescue dog two weeks ago. I browsed pet finder and looked for traits I desired - older, already house broken, good with other dogs, and good with kids. While it was difficult to see so many dogs needing homes, it was very helpful to start my search on the internet. I saw a lot of dogs I was interested in and wrote to several rescues. I told them exactly what I wanted in a dog and the place I ended up adopting from matched me up really well with a dog.

I highly recommend going with a rescue since they tend to know a lot about each dog. If a foster family has kids, they can tell you with some certainty if the dog will be good with kids. They can give you some insight into whether they think you will be a good match for any particular dog.

The rescue I worked with, they told me both the good and bad parts of the dog. My main concerns were that she would bark during the day when I wasn't home and disturb my neighbors or relieve herself in the common building areas. The rescue gave me a 2-week trial period during which I could have taken her back (after the first hour with her, I knew I would never take her back).

One caveat with rescues, is they may not respond to your application immediately, so try not to be too disappointed if it takes a week or more for them to get back to you.

I'm really glad I went through this process even though going to the shelter and picking out a dog would have been quicker.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:07 PM on October 19, 2011

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