True or false: a Labrador retriever makes a better family pet than a pit bull terrier. True or false: it’s better to start with a puppy than with an adult dog. True or false: a dog not raised in a loving home from the start probably has too much baggage to be adoptable.
Despite all the folklore and media hype, answering “true” to any of the above questions can result in adopting a dog who has serious behavior problems. Making blanket generalizations about a dog’s breed, background or age can be risky. Why? Because nature and nurture are both part of the formula for a dog’s personality, trainability and friendliness.
I do a lot of behavior assessments at Top Notch Dog and of shelter dogs through my volunteer work at Saving Grace. I have assessed little, cute-looking puppies who nevertheless were already aggressive with humans, other dogs, and unsafe to place in a home. I have seen Labrador retrievers who threaten children and pit bulls whose worst fault is that they give too many kisses. The truth is that troubled dogs can come from conscientious homes or breeders. And a truly wonderful dog from tough circumstances is still a wonderful dog (even if they are from a shelter, a puppy mill raid, or an abandonment).
Since stereotypes are not the best way to avoid disaster, what should the average person look for in their next canine companion? The key is not to make assumptions, but rather to evaluate each dog as an individual. Fortunately there are temperament tests developed for this purpose. Just like human personality tests, they have their strengths and limitations, but the one I use is especially helpful and the results tend to be predictive. It is called Assess-a-Pet® and helps match the right dog with the right family by focusing on the most important quality in a safe, trainable family companion: sociability.
A dog who is generally highly sociable with people, that is, one who is most interested in sustained, gentle, connections with people, is less likely to bite. After all, at some point people and dogs who live together will get on each other’s nerves. The kids may bug the dog, or the dog may test the patience of the adults. But if you have a truly sociable dog who prefers people over all else, the chance of a disagreement resulting in a dog bite are much slimmer. A dog who is truly affiliative towards people is easier to train, easier to take care of, easier at veterinary appointments, and more fun to have around in general. This concept was first recognized, studied and understood by Sue Sternberg, a dog trainer and innovator in the field of animal sheltering who developed the Assess-a-Pet test (which itself has now been studied).
I remember assessing an adorable puppy who was being considered by a family for adoption. I recommended my clients not adopt the dog because the test revealed that he showed almost no signs of true sociability. Even the three year old daughter noticed his aloof behavior, and asked her mother why the dog didn’t like her. That is the sort of dog who is much more likely to bite.
Of course it’s important to consider breed and breed mix. After all, humans have created dog breeds because they wanted to create predictable traits. Just make sure you judge individual dogs not primarily on what they look like, what color or breed they are, who their parents were, or where they came from, but rather based on their degree of sociability with humans and other dogs, and you’ll be much more likely to end up with a loving, fun, safe companion.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, in my experience over the last 10 years, it is getting harder and harder to find such dogs. This is probably for a variety of reasons, including population density of humans, spay-neuter campaigns, shelter transfer programs, dynamics that drive purebred dog breeding, and the huge variety of reasons that people keep dogs in their lives and the preferences they have. Your best bet is to know what to look for, regardless of where you get your next dog. To learn how to identify sociability and behaviors that may point to aggression down the line, read Successful Dog Adoption by Sue Sternberg. Happy Kids, Happy Dogs also has advice and photos of what to look for in your next family companion. Finally, you may find helpful the Links page of my website, which has a section called Choose the Right Dog. Good luck in your search!