I am frequently asked which breeds of dogs make the best family dogs. It’s a fair question because different breeds represent different genetic stocks of dogs, and it’s well known that genetics can have a strong influence on behavior. In a recent article, What Are The 5 Best Dogs For Your Family?, Sarah McCurdy tackles this subject.
Her top picks for best family dogs are the Newfoundland, Pug, Keeshond, Golden Retriever, and Labrador Retriever. I have no objections to her picks and have seen all of these breeds on many similar lists. It is true that all of these breeds have many qualities to recommend them and that many members of these breeds are great with children, easy to train, and generally a joy to have around.
Still, I think that as useful as these sorts of lists can be, I caution people not to choose a dog simply because members of that breed are supposed to make good family dogs. There is a lot more that goes into choosing the right dog for your family than picking a breed that’s a “good family dog.” It’s important to consider what you are looking for in a dog and also to evaluate an individual dog based on more than just its breed.
Dogs from the same breed vary a lot in their behavior. For example, some friends of my parents had a sweet, Jack Russell Terrier who was calm, cuddly, and very biddable. This is not typical of the breed by any stretch of the imagination, yet many people that met this dog subsequently wanted to get a Jack Russell. I was always worried about these elderly people in my parents’ social circle acquiring a dog that was not right for them as a result.
It might surprise many people to know that I saw more Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers when I was working with aggressive dogs full time than any other breeds. Do they tend to be aggressive? Not necessarily—it’s just that they are such common breeds that I was bound to see a lot of them because every breed has dogs with behavior problems, including aggression. The point is not to assume that a dog will be social and kind, good with kids, playful, or any other trait, based simply on their breed.
A dog must match your lifestyle, so even if, for example, the Newfoundland appeals to you, it’s not the right dog for you if you are not interested in regular grooming, or if the thought of dog hair on your carpet is a deal breaker. Similarly, an American Eskimo may not be a good bet if you live in an apartment building where barking is not tolerated, even if the breed suits you in every other way.
And when choosing a puppy, my best advice is to meet the parents if possible and only get a pup from a litter if you like the behavior of the parents. The parents’ behavior is one of the best predictors of a puppy’s behavior because so much of behavior has a genetic basis. If the dad is locked behind a fence because “he’s not good with strangers” then I wouldn’t bet on the puppies being good with strangers. And no matter what breed you are considering, I recommend avoiding the puppy that is off on its own (indicating a high likelihood that the puppy is overly shy and not very social) or the puppy that goes crazy, leaping and slamming into walls to get to you (indicating that impulse control may be a challenge for that individual.)
One of the advantages of adopting an adult rather than a puppy is that the dog is already developed and you have a better idea of what you are getting. If you adopt your dog from a shelter or a rescue (both of which are wonderful ways to acquire a fantastic dog and that I support wholeheartedly!), an adult dog is less likely to surprise you by developing into an individual very different than what you anticipated. Of course, millions of people have adopted puppies from shelters or rescues without knowing the parents, only to end up with the greatest dog they’ve ever known. And the same phenomenon applies to people with crosses of more than one breed. In fact, many people swear that the best dogs are so mixed in terms of breed composition that their parentage is truly “anybody’s guess.”
Part of acquiring a new dog is a commitment to accepting life’s little surprises. Even with the best research and planning, you may not get exactly what you bargained for so and there’s no way to guarantee that your expectations will be met. That’s why another key part of ending up with the right dog is an understanding that “right” can cover a broad range of possibilities.
Exceptions are very common to all the generalizations I’ve mentioned, but when getting a puppy, I believe in maximizing your chances of happiness by using any information available to you based on breed, family history, or observations of the puppy, by choosing the right puppy and by socializing that puppy well. The breed can be an important part of choosing a compatible puppy, but choosing a particular breed that you think is right for you is no guarantee of what that puppy will be like now or as an adult.