“I have young kids, how do I choose the right dog for our family?”
I get asked this question all the time, I even asked myself the same question when we were thinking of adding a 2nd dog to the mix.
My decision process now – as a mom with two young kids with busy social life, aka many playdates – was different from when I was single and adopted Lola in 2011 from Animal Haven.
Puppy vs. Adult
Both choices have benefits and challenges. It’s important to consider how much work you want to put in initially and what will be the best fit for your family.
One of the benefits people feel about puppies is, of course, their adorableness and fun nature. Puppies can be raised in your family from a very young age, and you will be there throughout all the stages of their life. However, puppies are a LOT of work and have a lot of energy.
Puppies need to be well socialized (teaching them to feel comfortable with people, sounds, other dogs, and objects). Socialization is about exposing puppies repeatedly to everything in their world, inside and outside the home, in a safe and controlled way. These exposures must be positive, pleasant experiences for the puppy.
Remember when your child was a newborn baby?
In the initial few months, puppies will be a similar amount of work (including potentially some sleep loss).
Some things you and your pup will have to work on:
- Potty training
- Chewing (everything) and mouthing/play-biting people
- Crate training/alone time (including sleeping through the night)
- Socialization (time commitment)
- Basic manners
- Require A LOT of exercise.
Pros: Unlike puppies, most adult dogs have some potty training and often just need a refresher when coming into a new home. Depending on the age and temperament of the adult dog, they have a lot less frenetic energy than a puppy and can settle and just hang out with the family. With puppies, you have to raise them from scratch and everything that entails; with adult dogs, you choose the size, age, and temperament of the dog you want and can focus on training. Of course, it is more complicated than that but generally, adopting a mature dog is less time-consuming than getting a puppy.
Cons: With adult dogs, we often don’t know their history, we don’t know if they have bite inhibition, and initially, we don’t know their triggers.
Getting a puppy or an adult dog are both rewarding in their own way; you just have to decide what’s important for your family.
What I would do:
Puppy: Whether a rescue/rehome or a puppy from a breeder, I would choose one that is pro-social to people and dogs, confident, can be easily touched all over, and is not protective of food or toys. One that has been raised with littermates (not a singleton).
Adult rescue/rehomed dogs: I would prefer to foster for a few weeks to see how they do in our home. I would look for one that has been socialized with young children, isn’t fearful when walking in my community or visiting my favorite places, is not protective of spaces or resources from people, and is about 1-5 years old.
Things to Consider
Is it a lifestyle match?
Consider your family’s lifestyle and choose a dog that will fit into that lifestyle. Many behavior problems come from a dog not being the right match for the family.
- How much do you want to include your dog in family life and activities?
- How active is your family?
- How much time do you have to train your dog?
Have you done breed research?
Research the breed if you’re looking to get a puppy from a breeder or rescue a purebred adult.
- A dog bred to be a guard dog will likely bark at visitors to your home or strangers on the street. Do you have visitors often? Does your child have friends over?
- A dog bred to herd or work on a farm will need to run a lot and want to chase moving objects. How much time will your family have to exercise such a dog? Do you live in a city with many skateboarders, scooters, and cyclists?
Do personalities (both dog and human) collide?
Every dog is an individual, and dogs do not always conform to breed standards.
Think of the specific puppy or dog you’re looking at, how will they or won’t they be a good fit?
- Will a senior citizen tiny dog be a good fit for your home with active toddlers?
- Will a large athletic dog who likes to chase be a good fit for your shy child?
Another thing to consider is how the dog may fit with your other pets or pets of family members who may visit a lot.
- Will a hunting breed dog be a good fit for your skittish cat?
- Will a dog bred to hunt and kill rodents be a good fit with your child’s guinea pig?
- Will this new dog be a good match if you have another dog?
Where to get your new dog from
Breeder: If you are considering getting a puppy from a breeder, choosing which breeder to use is your most important decision. Poor breeding causes health and behavior problems that are hard to overcome, even if you do everything right and train the puppy once they come home.
Responsible breeders will:
- Only breed 1 or 2 kinds of dogs
- You can visit the breeder, see the conditions and meet the parents of your puppy
- Health test puppies
- Will require that you return the puppy if something is wrong or the puppy is not a good match
- Provide proper socialization from the beginning. The critical socialization period starts at 3 weeks and ends at 12-14 weeks of age (some sources say 16 weeks).
Rescue organization/ shelter: It is important to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue organization that thoroughly tests for ‘red flag behaviors,’ such as being protective of food, or other resources, severe shyness, doesn’t like being touched, shows aggression toward dogs or people, etc. Even with testing, some dogs suppress behaviors in the rescue shelter environment and show them later once adopted. We often don’t know the socialization and history of the dog and what reactions they may have once in a home environment.
Guidelines for bringing home your new dog
- The whole family should meet the dog before you adopt - whether at the breeder’s, a shelter, or a place where the dog is fostered or lives with their current family.
Ideally, the meeting is supervised by a trainer or an experienced dog professional/volunteer if young children are present. The dog should be given plenty of space and time to approach the children. If you are set on getting a dog that needs some time to warm up to some family members, have another meeting (or more) to see if the behavior changes the next time the dog sees them. A dog should either have a dragline, or an adult holds the leash (no straining).
- I recommend learning as much as possible about the dog's body language. Understanding what a dog communicates with their body will give you a chance to make an informed decision.
- Have management set up before bringing the dog into the home. Get a crate, an exercise pen, or a baby gate to section off part of the house your puppy will be allowed access to. Not sure what to get? Check out my various gates and other dog equipment recommended by my clients, followers, and myself.
- Go over the rules of interaction (when you sign up for a newsletter) with your children before you get a dog and frequently rehearse after you get a dog. Your kids will most likely be very excited and possibly overwhelm the dog. Make sure to give the new member of the family breaks from the little ones. If you have an infant or a toddler, supervision is essential.
- Don’t trust blindly because a dog was adopted out as ‘great with children’ or it is a breed that ‘does great with kids.’ Any dog can bite. Take time to get to know the dog and be initially cautious, especially if you have young children.
- Sign up for a positive reinforcement obedience training class, ideally, one your child can join (age appropriate) or work with a certified dog trainer. Unsure how to find one? Check out this blog post.
- If a dog shows serious behavioral issues, if your loud and busy household continues to be a nightmare for the newly adopted dog, talk to the breeder, shelter, or rescue organization. Not all dogs can live safely with young kids.
My own dogs
Lola, my heart dog
I got Lola from Animal Haven when she was 8 months old. I wanted a young rescue but not a puppy, a large dog to compete in scent detection, well socialized with people, dogs, and the environment. I was single then, lived with roommates in NYC, and Lola was the perfect dog for me.
Hela, our puppy
We recently got a puppy, this time from a breeder, a Spanish Water Dog. I wanted a medium size dog with easy-to-maintain fur, a fun companion for my children, and a high-energy puppy who likes water but also one that is very trainable. Our current location, Spain, partially determined the choice of the breed.
I know Hela’s parents and grandparents; the breeder did the health tests and focused on early socialization. Her litter was bred for therapy work. But….even if I know way more about her than Lola, I don’t have any guarantees she will turn out as the breeder planned.
Here is an excellent article by Kayla Fratt about 5 Nature vs. Nurture Myths About Dogs: Is Your Dog a Product of Genetics or Environment?
- Genetics significantly influences your dog’s behavior.
- Puppies aren’t blank slates. They come with genetics that determines temperament, in-utero experiences that modify that (stressful experiences or sicknesses for a mother dog can literally change how her puppies’ brains are wired), and neonatal experiences that change them even more.
- Your dog’s temperament is probably more like 40% genetics, 60% environment, or even less genetics and more environment! We don’t know precisely – and certain traits are probably more heritable than others. But the 40/60 split comes from 2017 research on how genetics influence behavior in dogs.
- If dogs truly came out with 100% predetermined behavior based on their genetics, we wouldn’t have to be so careful about socialization and training. We could just pick a friendly puppy, and our work would be done.
Whether you choose a puppy from a shelter, a breeder, or an adult rescue, who the dog is, is the interaction of many different genes, plus socialization, training, and other life experiences.