Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What Makes for a Starter Dog?

I was recently in a dog discussion room where someone asked, "What would be a good first dog for me?" They provided no information about them self or what they were prepared to provide for a dog or expected of a dog. Obviously, this was not a dog person. What surprised me even more was that a few people, supposedly 'dog people' immediately threw out a few breed names. Whaaa?

 Pretty much anyone reading here knows all the kinds of things we need to think about when picking a breed of dog: trainability, exercise needs, grooming, health problems, owner expectations etc. And really, it doesn't matter what breed you name, I can probably think of someone who has started out with one as their first dog - some more successfully than others. An owner can start with any kind of dog if they're willing to put the effort and self-education into the relationship.

Yet, I can't stop thinking about some of the "easier" starter breeds...and if such a thing even exists. On the one hand, it does not exist. Any breed could provide a challenge that would make it a poor match for someone.

On the other hand, some breeds are less demanding on people than others. So maybe a better question to ask would be, if you are kinda lazy, don't want to exercise or groom too much, are only going to do a moderate amount of training, is there a breed that won't be unbearable to live with? Ahhh, maybe....

Basically, without some training any puppy will grow into an obnoxious dog. With some solid basic training that can be originally acquired in a group dog obedience class though, some breeds require lower maintenance than others.

There are still some variations depending on whether a person is willing to groom once a month or several times a week, if a person wants to exercise by walking daily or throwing a ball around the yard. With these restrictions in mind let's give this a shot.

Feel free to add your own suggestions to this list but remember, the breed can't require too much training to be manageable, can't require too much exercise, can't be a grooming nightmare, should get along with a range of people, able to get along with other animals, and shouldn't be known for constant health problems (yes, I'm thinking Bulldog.)
 And what does that leave....

First choice:
A medium sized, short haired, mixed breed, middle aged to older dog from an all breed rescue where the dogs are home fostered and observed so that the foster family can assure you that the dog is laid back, house broken, and has been reasonably healthy while living with them. Seriously. This is probably the BEST starter dog for someone new to the dog owning experience.

  Follow up choices

Limited exercise needs
Family friendly
Low grooming needs
Reasonably trainable

 Japanese Chin
Limited exercise needs
Family friendly
Some brushing
Reasonably trainable

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
A little more exercise
A little more grooming
A little more trainable
Very family friendly
Born to be people companions

Moderate exercise
Low grooming
Moderately trainable
Family friendly
Need companionship

Bull Mastiff
Limited exercise
Low grooming
Family Friendly
Some drool

I can think of one or two other breeds that up the exercise or grooming needs, or have a tendency to bond with one member of the family more than others - these would be my second string of starter choices.

Now let's hear your nominations. Or, let's hear some stories from people who started out with a breed that for one reason or another would not be a usual pick for a starter dog -- tell us what you did to prepare and adjust to the challenges of the dog you chose. Mention one challenge you ran into and one bonus of your dog that you appreciate (breed trait or individual trait.)


  1. I'm not a typical starter Dog - I'm a Bearded Collie - I'm nearly 2 years old - I was my Dad's and the kids first Dog, my Mum had been lucky enough to have Golden's and Jack Russells previously.

    They chose my breed as they had become familiar with the neighbours Beardie, I am super friendly - so good with kids - I had potential to be a good Therapy Dog (I just passed a week ago! yay!) - and I have lots of energy….. :)

    The energy thing could be a disadvantage too, but my Mum runs with me (and now the neighbours Beadie too) every day - we love it!!

    My fluffy coat takes a lot of grooming too, but Mum enjoys it and we have a big grooming session - 1-2 hours each week - but that also means I don't shed much! :)

    Hope you're having a fun day and great to see you on the Mischief Blog Hop :)

    Your pal Snoopy :)

    1. Snoopy - you are an EXCELLENT example of what I was thinking of - a Beardie would not make the average starter list: you require exercise, grooming, training, and some direction.

      Thanks to your most wonderful family's meeting your needs they are reaping the benefits of a very smart, trainable, fun dog who I bet is going to excel at therapy work - YEAH on PASSING! And your children are going to grow up with the best memories of a devoted and fun dog. I bet as adults they will tell everyone they grew up with "the smartest dog in the world." You're going to be a legend :-)

      Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing with us!

  2. Ooo, tough one. I totally agree a medium middle aged to senior (7 plus years old) from a local shelter would be best. A dog someone can spend time with before adopting. Best if a person works with a trainer willing to come along and help evaluate. My first trainer specialized in this.

    That said, of course a lab or golden would be top picks for an energetic owner who enjoys the outdoors. But I like a dog who loves everyone. Labs are more food oriented and maybe less biddable, maybe more nose driven. My golden requires little grooming, is super sweet and gentle, and mellow inside. Outdoors he is more excitable. He is quite biddable.

    Beagles are super sweet and easy going, but have a rep as tough to train, including house train. And as a hound few are reliable off leash. And they tend to talk. A lot and loudly. Two hounds later, I will never forget their bays of sadness audible for blocks in summer when I failed to take them with me on a jaunt. Kathy

    1. Why would anyone leave their hound at home :-))))

      It is true - hounds are not the MOST trainable dogs in the world. In their favor though, Beagles seem to get by with lower standard of intentional training - once the time is put in to house train them, they are often good at picking up the general expectations. And no, they are not an off leash dogs but unfortunately, a lot of people seem to just turn them out in the yard for outside time, either in a fence or on a tie out. I've seen many adjust.

      There was a time when I never would have recommended a Beagle on this list. Then, when I started teaching I met student after student who had a Beagle growing up. They all sang the Beagle's praise as a family dog. After hearing so many stories of how great Beagles are in busy families, I've been converted.
      Despite the breed characteristics - vocal, not the quickest to house train (still not as bad as some terriers), and on-leash - their pleasant personalities and willingness to fall in with whatever the family is doing, to adjust to more or less activity depending on the action of the day...I think they have their merits as starter dogs for the right people.

      That said, I grew up with Retrievers....

  3. Great quandary!

    What about rescue Greyhounds? Already crate trained/housebroken, medium sized (some larger), short haired, willing to be couch potatoes, depending, but also willing to be great walking/hiking partners.

    The drool of the Mastiff and the potential health problems of the Cavaliers might put people off.

    I didn't find out until later that the Doberman is not a "starter" breed...whoops. Different owners are able to achieve different levels of education and commitment; we're lucky I was willing to wholeheartedly become a "crazy dog lady".

    1. Jen, I was hoping you'd speak up :-)

      You are one of the people I think of when I think of non-traditional starter dogs that are success stories due to the person's self-education and devotion to the job at hand.

      I would certainly never encourage a Dobe as a starter dog, lol. But you have made this arrangement a successful one- Kudos by the way. You are another perfect example of the point that one of the biggest keys to success with ANY breed of dog is the commitment of the owner. (Getting a healthy dog makes a difference too and while we can do our homework, sometimes that is a health lottery we loose.)

      I hesitated with putting the Cavaliers on the list because they are a good example of needing to be very particular with the blood lines and health testing that a breeder is doing when either getting a pup or adopting an adult...many of the breeders of the Cavalier are very active in health testing though, so a potential owner has a better than average chance of getting a Cavalier who comes from a bloodline that is actively working to reduce health problems. That was a close call though and it is something a family needs to consider when looking at this breed.

      And heck yeah on the drool - but I am taking into account that some people are willing to put up with that in return for having a big, pretty easy going dog that likes a family. A lot of the bigger breeds need more exercise or training, which is why the Bull Mastiff is the only big dog on my list right now.

      And note to would be first time dog owners *Jen is an exceptionally devoted dog person* I still don't recommend a Doberman as a starter dog for the average person :-)

    2. And a big yes on rescue Greyhounds!
      In fact, they almost were on the list - but they do need about 30 minutes of solid exercise each day and in my experience a lot of starter homes aren't prepared to devote that regularly to a dog.

      For a family that has access to a place where the Greyhound can safely run once a day, or who has a jogger in the family, this a terrific choice. Once they've had their daily run, they're happy to be very unobtrusive love sponges. I've had friends with rescued Greyhounds and I've always found them to be really lovely dogs. And those eyes!

  4. Great post! I agree with your number one suggestion, but would add that almost any dog in a foster situation would be good (for the same reasons you gave.) That said, I'm partial to mixed breed mutts. And my personal bias is some Golden Retriever in that mix.

    1. Hi Sue,

      I actually had a reason for indicating medium sized versus say, small with first dogs. A lot of the smaller rescue dogs have some terrier in the mix and there's a reason that an increasing number of rescue groups are putting the caveat, "must have terrier experience" on these terrier-ifc bundles of energy and personality. Along with their particular personalities, terriers can be some of the hardest to house train dogs - people new to dog owning can get discouraged; a hard to house-train dog also increases the likelihood of an adoption failure.

      I personally love a mutt and this is the first time in my life that I haven't had one around. When my Sam died (Rottweiler-Lab) I was so heartbroken...He is the dog picture I keep on my desk... his was also the second of my rescue dogs that died within a year, so I had to take a break for a little while. That's how I eventually ended up with Lil the Lab (from a reputable breeder hoping to ensure a long, healthy life.)

      I'll also take this moment to say, if one is interested in a particular breed of dog, breed rescues are another good place to find a dog. Jenny was on her way to Collie rescue when I adopted her; she had been abused and needed a lot of work but what a terrific girl! Even though she lacks a little Golden :-)

    2. Hi. So Sam was one of your once in a lifetime dogs. I remember his story and now I have an even deeper sense of the parallels with Gilly. How heartbreaking, Kathy

    3. Sammy holds a very special place in my life and heart - I know a lot of people who stop by here know what it is to miss a super special dog and I know that you understand Kathy, how tough that loss was. I have to remind myself that when we're gifted with special dogs we will suffer hard losses...and I try not to borrow trouble by thinking about a future without my girls.

  5. Good philosophy. I will add a thought-we can also take great care with them. I am more cautious with Gus around snowmobiles and cars than some of my friends are with their dogs. Sometimes I feel like a nervous nelly. BUT I love Gus dearly and it would be unendurable to lose him to a preventable accident. Kathy

    1. Too true - makes me cringe when people let their dogs run loose by a road etc, because, "They would never step into the road." First, it only takes once, and second, when my mom was a girl she was walking with the family dog to the store when someone intentionally swerved to hit the dog - it only takes once. I not only keep my dogs leashed by the road but I walk with them on the shoulder and me between them and the on coming vehicle. Caution is not a bad thing in my book.

  6. Hi Y'all,

    When my Human was a kid they lived in the country and strays were dumped all the time. They were her early experience with dogs.

    Rescue situations, foster groups and a dog from one of the "prisoners training dogs" programs would make the best starter dog. These are usually adult dogs and they can be matched with an adopter because a good deal has been learned about their energy level and health.

    For example, if you want a Golden, go to a rescue group. You'll be glad you did. You will get to spend time getting to know a little about the dog and may even decide it isn't the right dog or breed for your lifestyle.

    A lot of people think an adult dog won't bond...guess what, we will and we do.

    Y'all come back now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog