“Carpe Canem”: Where to get that perfect dog (and what to do before you go)

As with most things in today’s more complicated world, there are several places to find that perfect dog. To the uninitiated, it can seem a daunting task. Sadly, many people take more time deciding what kind of car to buy than what type of dog would fit best into their household. Area shelters are full of someone’s bad choices, and the dogs themselves are not to blame, though many pay with their lives. The worst way to select a canine companion is on impulse, so it pays to do your homework. Here are a few tips to help you, and some links that will tell you more. I feel strongly about this subject, as dogs deserve nothing less than humans who are prepared to meet all of their needs. Please educate yourself here and elsewhere before making this very important decision.

Step One: Determine your needs
Do you want a family dog? A dog for the kids? A running partner? A TV-watching couch potato? A watchdog? A dog to do doggy sports with? A show dog? Any dog you choose deserves to spend quality time with you, so I didn’t include “yard dog” in that list. To put it bluntly, if you want a lawn ornament, get a plastic flamingo. Dogs are social creatures who need to be an active part of your pack. If you think dogs are too smelly or rambunctious to live indoors, please select a different pet. You can meet your dog’s pack needs without catering to him 24/7, and you should. In a yard alone is no life for any dog.

You must figure out what you can afford in terms of time and money before even considering a dog. If you have the “perfect dog” in your mind’s eye, and your criteria for “perfect” is its color or markings, you need to dig deeper. Looks alone are a poor reason to choose a dog. There are more than 400 breeds out there, plus countless one-of-a-kind mutts, so make a list of the things you want your dog to be, and what needs he will be fulfilling. A sample list may look like this:

  • less than 40 pounds
  • low-shed, because of children’s allergies (there is no such thing as a non-shedding dog)
  • playful and fun
  • good with kids
  • will want cuddling and petting
  • medium exercise needs (able to be fulfilled in a fenced yard and with neighborhood walks for the most part)
Several breeds may fit that list, so consult a good breed book like Kilcommons and Wilson’s Paws To Consider (unfortunately out of print now…look on ebay or half.com) for the low-down (good and bad) on hundreds of breeds they have personally trained. In lieu of the book, try www.dogbreedinfo.com for information about hundreds of breeds. Narrow your search down to 2 or 3 “ideal breeds,” then create a “secondary” list that will have mixes of those breeds or other breeds that will meet most of your needs with some adjustment.

You must also consider the needs of the dog! This is where most people err in their searches–they make a list of breeds that will meet the humans’ needs, but they think little about what the dog will need.

Do you have the time, space and physique to exercise that dog? Will he need more than a walk around the block every day? (Most dogs do.) Will he be interested in fetching a ball? (If so, he will be easier to exercise.) Will your yard be big enough and fenced securely enough for him when he is in it? How much time will he spend in that yard supervised? Alone? Who will feed, walk, play with, exercise, medicate, groom, train and take the dog to the vet? Children forget, and the bulk of the dog’s needs end up being met by Mom. Will this work?

Once you know you can meet his needs and he yours (at least theoretically; nothing is a “sure thing” because animals have personalities and instincts, as well as breed characteristics), you are ready to start your actual Australian Shepherds like this active guy (shown at an agility match) need lots more mental and physical stimulation than many other breeds search.

Noted trainer and author Brian Kilcommons has said, “The right dog can bring you great happiness, but the wrong dog can break your heart.” Selecting a dog takes clear, rational thinking mixed with an intuitive emotional response. Be prepared to use both sides of your brain!

Step Two: Acquire From the Right Source
Let’s begin this section with some warnings and prohibitions. If there is one absolute in dog acquisition, it is this: NEVER buy a puppy or dog from a pet store. Ever. Pet stores cater to the uneducated impulse buyer, and all they care about is getting your money. This isn’t an anti-capitalist manifesto, it is the truth. There are much better places to get a less expensive, better-quality dog. ALSO, do not buy a dog or puppy over the Internet! Puppymillers are getting VERY savvy, and buying a dog sight unseen online is a big mistake. If you cannot see the dog or puppy in person before paying for it, steer clear. Here’s a great blog post from my friend SmartDogs about online puppy sales.

NOTE: no matter what some savvy pet store clerk, or Internet "breeder" tells you, reputable breeders NEVER sell their precious pups to pet stores--real breeders are acutely interested in where their creations are going. Pet stores know people are getting wise, so they will try to tell you that they "don't buy from puppy mills, only good breeders." Hogwash!


Why not to buy anything from a store that sells dogs or cats.
Can you end up with a nice pet from a pet store? Sure. In spite of the odds, it happens. As a trainer, I am always surprised when it does, because the deck is stacked against you and the dog. If you have a pet store pup, or know someone who has, there is nothing you can do to rectify the wrong. Vow not to repeat your error, train your pooch well, and educate everyone you can about better ways to select a dog. You may want to set up a savings fund for medical emergencies, but I’d do that with any pet.

Dogs are social creatures and form bonds early on. The better bred pups are hand-reared until at least 8 weeks of age, bred for good temperament, free of major genetic maladies, and placed by breeders who really care about where the pet is going. Pet stores are hopefully going the way of the dodo because more and more people are educating themselves.

What about newspaper ads? Well, no reputable breeder will either sell pups to pet stores, or will advertise them for sale in newspaper or magazine classifieds. Puppies advertised in newspapers are usually created to

  1.  make the “breeder” money, or
  2. get rid of pups created by accident.

The term for most folks who sell pups this way is “Backyard Breeder.” Often, a BYB is simply a puppy mill on a smaller scale.

The BYB is not trying to better the breed. He’s often trying simply to recoup his “investment” in an overpriced purebred dog. He has not, as a rule, put much thought into inheritable characteristics or genetics (things all puppy buyers should be concerned with). He will try to add value to his product by bragging that the pups are “AKC registered” or “CKC registered.” This is an attempt to seem legit. AKC stands for American Kennel Club, which is a purebred registry. This registration is often called the pups “papers,” and it is worth about as much as the papers you might put down in his “safe zone” during potty training. Registry papers mean only that the dam and the sire of the pups were themselves registered with that registry. “Papers” are no guarantee of quality, only of registry. They are necessary if you plan on showing the dog, but that’s about it. (It isn’t difficult to register dogs; I’ve heard that one guy managed to register his human son with the AKC, simply to prove a point.) There are now several registries that BYBs go to when they don’t have AKC registered “parents.” Don’t be blinded by initials.

BYBs are in it for money. Though their “wares” are generally cheaper than reputable breeders’ pups, don’t be fooled. You get what you pay for. BYBs don’t care what kind of owner you will be, only that you have cash and you can take the pup now, because taking care of all those pups is starting to be a burden (and he doesn’t want to pay for all those pups’ dewormings and shots, either, like a reputable breeder would). Many BYBs convince buyers to take pups at 4, 5, or 6 weeks of age, which is WAY too young! For puppies to be properly socialized and better trained, they need to stay with their mom and littermates (and a caring breeder who will handle them properly) no less than 49 days after birth. Longer is better, IF the breeder is handling the pup daily and working on crate training, and socialization, too. If anyone tries to pawn a pup off on you before it is 49 days old, turn and walk away. It may be adorable now, but it is not worth it–it is already in a deficit.


1. Well-run animal shelters or county “pounds”
Giving new hope to a homeless pet is one of life’s greatest joys. The fact of the matter is that there are way too many nice pets out there and not enough homes for them (the Australian Cattle Dog at left was surrendered to a shelter). Your local shelter may have just the right dog for you, and you will literally be saving a life. Though most of the available dogs will be mutts, if you are not too picky, you, the educated consumer, can find a great dog or puppy. Speaking of that, dog or puppy? For the price of adoption (which is cheap), you not only get a dog, but often other free stuff, and usually a caring staff and volunteers that are there to help you choose, care for, and train your new friend. It is likely that your local shelter has a website to give you more information. Find out more about my favorite shelter, the Atlanta Humane Society, or search for animal shelters or humane societies in your town. (My “Other Stuff” page has links to my favorite shelters across the country; yours may be listed.)

2. Someone you know and trust who needs to rehome a pet
Let’s face it, life happens, and often, through poor planning or just bad luck, you hear of a friend who needs to rehome their pet. If that pet fits your criteria, you are helping to stack the deck in your favor by taking him, especially if he is being given up due to divorce, allergies, or moving. He may already have training, and you will know his background, or at least some of it. Be aware that even friends may embellish Fido’s good points, because you will be taking a huge weight off their shoulders by taking him. Be realistic, and spend time with the dog before making a decision. NOTE: do NOT take the dog if he is not going to fit into your household! Doing your friend a favor is a noble thing, but it isn’t helping anyone if you are not prepared to properly care for the dog and meet all his needs.

3. A reputable breeder
If you simply must have a purebred puppy, be prepared to answer lots of questions and pay more than you would at a shelter. Good breeders are a rarity, and their pups are valuable because of all the planning, time and expertise behind them. You may spend several months or more searching. Most reputable breeders do not have pups constantly available, so you may have to pay a deposit and wait for a litter. If you are lucky enough to find a reputable breeder close by, visit the kennels and ask lots of questions. Know what you want, and be willing to wait for the perfect dog if that is what it takes (but allow the breeder to choose the actual pup for you once you go to pick it out. A good breeder will know the personalities of his pups, and will be best equipped to match you to the best one in the litter). Reputable breeders are often found by word-of-mouth, not ads in back of dog magazines. Don’t assume a slick website means the breeder is good, either. Check them out. Here are some of the hallmarks of irresponsible breeders. Avoid “breeders” like these. Buying from irreputable people just keeps them in business, and the dogs they are producing are not improving the breed.

You are sort of right. Lots of people buy these pups, and many turn out just fine. By the same token, some pups from reputable breeders aren’t perfect. So why all the fuss?

A reputable breeder has experience in genetics, for one. It’s tricky to breed quality animals that actually improve the breed. These folks have studied and apprenticed and worked very hard to produce nice dogs. Their pups cost more because of this, and you know what? Very few reputable breeders make money from breeding-most are employed in some other fashion; breeding is their hobby. They sink hours into competing (so the dogs they breed have been proven above average) and hours into educating themselves, not to mention lovingly caring for the breeding dogs and all the pups from birth to 8 weeks (some breeders prefer to keep the pups until they are 12 weeks). These pups are hand-reared, socialized, given all applicable shots, dewormings and TLC. These excellent breeders feed the highest quality food, and they screen buyers. They also agree to take back any of their pups at any time for any reason…even years later. All this dedication (and believe me, it is a LOT of work) pays off with healthy, medically sound pups who have the best start in life. By purchasing a purebred pup from a reputable breeder, you stack the deck in your favor. You are paying for expertise, and future support. It is well worth the price if you simply must have a purebred pup.

A BYB or pet store is not going to be around when you have problems. They don’t take dogs back. They don’t offer advice on raising and training, they just want your money. When your beloved dog develops hip dysplasia or glaucoma or some other costly genetic disease because the breeder didn’t test his dogs or care if they were inferior, you will have no recourse. Reputable breeders will not breed dogs with inheritable genetic disorders. A BYB thinks that he can put two dogs of the same breed (or different breeds) together, and if pregnancy and birth occurs, he’s got it made. He’ll dump the pups before they are ready (sometimes, horribly, as early as 4 weeks of age) so that he doesn’t have to spend money vaccinating them, and because they become too much trouble. The worst part about it? By paying him, you have validated his half-hearted enterprise. The world does not need more ho-hum dogs–millions die in shelters every day. Don’t support irresponsible people.

4. A reputable breed rescue
Want a purebred, but don’t need or want a puppy? Try the shelter first, then try a local breed rescue. Good rescues are like good breeders–hard to find, but worth the look. They will adhere to many of the same hallmarks as good shelters. The nice thing about a good rescue is that the “staff” will most likely be knowledgeable about that breed, and since most rescues do not have shelter facilities, the dogs are often fostered in the “staff’s” homes, so they will know about the individual dogs, too. Stay away from any “rescue” that will not agree to take the dog back at any time without question, or does not temperament test the dogs they take in. Unfortunately, some “rescue” people get too close emotionally to the animals in their care, and cannot always make good decisions about what dogs are adoptable, or where they should be placed. A decent rescue group has experience (the more the better), good temp testing, and makes placements based on needs. Though they want every match to be perfect, good rescues take dogs back, no questions asked.

For my money, I’d stick with adopting from a good shelter. If you simply must have a purebred pup, find a reputable breeder and wait for the right pup. Do not make an impulse decision.


Since adult dogs are a dime a dozen in shelters (puppies go faster), and adopting an adult typically means less work from you off the bat, I’d take a serious look at getting an adult dog. Puppies are cute and wonderful, but they are babies. An 8-week-old puppy will need almost constant tending for several months. Housebreaking takes that long at least, and he can’t be left home alone all day. He needs more work, time, and money than the average adult dog. Puppies mouth, chew more, and get into more trouble than the average adult dog. It is a myth that you will not properly “bond” with the dog unless you raise him yourself. You can bond with any dog at any age, really.

Conversely, an adult shelter dog has often had some obedience training (he’ll need more, but not as much as a puppy), is usually past the mouthy stage, and may be housetrained already (or at least halfway there-at any rate, he is equipped to “hold it” longer than a puppy). If you have kids, it will be less work for you, and better for the kids (just find a dog who has had experience with children). Puppies have sharp teeth, and until they are taught to play nicely, they hurt children while playing. If you are the typical busy parent, the puppy’s training will fall by the wayside, and he won’t know how to behave. Before long, he will become an annoying, untrained adolescent dog and will be banished to the backyard, or worse. Do you really have the time to raise another baby?

I’ve heard countless success stories of families that gave that 1, 2, 3-year-old (or older) dog a chance, and it was like getting a “ready-made” pet. Sure, he needed time to adjust to their household (all dogs do), and he might have been reliquished for frustrating behavior reasons like separation anxiety, destructiveness, housebreaking, jumping the fence, or other issues. But the “start-up” costs were minimal, housetraining was typically easier, and they were helping a “less adoptable” homeless pet. It is a bit of a crapshoot, but usually turns out for the best if you adopt from a reputable source. The more they know about the dog, the better.

A decent amount of dogs in shelters are purebreds, too–the previous owners might have spent thousands for this dog, but couldn’t keep him. Their poor planning (or life troubles) are your gain. It happens almost every day at the Atlanta Humane Society. Give a sweet adult dog a chance. (And if you haven’t had a dog in a long time, or this is your first dog as a grownup, and adult dog is a great “starter” pet.)

I love adopting adult dogs. I just have an affinity for them. They have such unique personalities, and such need. They need you to take them home…maybe they belonged to a family already, and so they know what it is like to live in a home. As a trainer, I enjoy puppies and helping their owners with them. But as a pet owner, adult dogs speak to me in ways puppies don’t. It’s as if they are saying, “Just give me a chance. I don’t know what I did wrong before, but I know I can be a great dog.” Maybe it’s sappy and anthropomorphic, but I can’t help it.