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Quick Tips for Choosing a Dog or Puppy

03/25/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2013

You're excited about getting a dog or puppy -- but you're a little nervous, too. What breed is right for your lifestyle? Should you get a puppy or older dog? Rescue or purebred? One or two? Should you buy a dog online? Is your house ready? Your kids? What about food? Leashes? Collars? Crates? Yikes! Choosing, raising, and training a dog is a big responsibility. The time you spend getting ready will make a big difference.

As a dog trainer, I relish pre-adoptions consultations -- helping people consider the right dog for their lifestyle and preparing their household for the new addition. As an author of a several puppy training manuals, I've devoted hundreds of pages to pre-adoption considerations, from initial shopping lists to the more important question of what type of dog or puppy would best suit a given lifestyle. Here are my top five tips.

1. Consider the Breed or Mixed-Breed

Like children, dogs are dependent on grownups to nurture and entertain them. Whether you may fancy the big, regal Bernese Mountain Dog that lives down your street or you're enamored with the little terrier-mix that struts past your doorstep each morning, try not to pick a dog to match your couch cushions. Each dog breed comes with its own personal flare and somewhat predictable set of responsibilities.

There are over 400 different dog breeds worldwide, originally fine-tuned by people to preform a specific function in society. Before our grand technological age, long before the industrial revolution, all around the globe we tailored a dog's instincts to aid in a variety of tasks including hunting, retrieving game, herding, and protection. Northern regions bred dogs to pull sleds; southern shorelines utilized dogs to retrieve fishing nets. Fast-forward to the present. While enthusiasts preserve most dog breeds, dogs have their own unemployment woes. The best we can do is to recognize their passions and satisfy their impulses with some creative alternatives.

Before getting a dog, consider how its intended purpose will play out in your household. Hunting and retrieving dogs are high-energy breeds that strive for a purpose. Protection dogs are intent and serious, and grow disquieted when life becomes chaotic or unpredictable. Companion dogs are drawn to comfort of a warm lap.

When you buy a purebred dog, you're buying into a generational lineage. Being a purebred dog is like belonging to an exclusive club: Only dogs with similar looks and interests get in. Even though it's a big club, few genetic variations are available to the next generation.

Mixed-breed Dogs? "Mixed-breed" simply means that the parents of the dog were not of the same breed. I've loved both -- they offer the same loyalty, love, and devotion. Many argue that a mixed-breed dog is healthier due to their expanded gene pool. The fun comes in trying to deduce the breed combinations. While there is a DNA test that claims to pinpoint a dog's mixed heritage, you can venture an educated guess based on a dog or puppy's looks and passions.

2. Your Life -- Now and Five Years From Now

Envision your life now, and then think ahead. Where will you be 10 years from now? While your decision of breed or mixed-breed dog may not change, how you train and socialize your puppy should. Your puppy is hardwired with a socialization window. Early exposure will ensure he or she recognizes and accepts novel stimulations. Be sure you have the time to introduce your puppy to objects and people, or find a dog who has had this exposure.

See babies -- or grandbabies -- in your future? Ensure your dog is well socialized to them early on. Choose a breed or mixed-breed dog that is predictable and calm with chaos and uncertainty.

Are you active or more sedentary? While all dogs need daily interaction, there are many breeds that are happy with a walk around the block and even some smaller breeds who'd be satisfied with a few laps around the dining room table. Working, sporting, and hunting breeds need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation -- will you be up for it now and in the coming decade?

Dogs, like young toddlers, can't take care of themselves. But unlike kids who grow up and can brush their own hair and clip their nails, your dog will depend on your nurturing his whole life. Do you envision daily grooming fests? There are breeds that shed year round and others who don't shed at all. Feathery-haired breeds may not shed often, but require a daily comb-through to prevent painful hair matting. While a hypo-allergenic, non-shedder sounds dreamy, these dogs need professional stylists (aka groomers). Are you prepared for the cost?

Finally, are you someone who craves affection or who longs for more personal space? Companion and working breeds crave social interaction and rarely make a decision without weighing our opinion. If you don't train these dogs, they will pester you at every turn, and may destroy your furnishings if you're delayed. Other breeds, like terriers and hound breeds, are more independent and self-directed.

Bottom line? Set your goal on the next decade, be true to yourself and honor the commitment to your puppy or dog, before you make it.

3. Age

I'm often asked, "Is there a perfect age to get a dog or puppy?" The short answer is no -- no magical age, though all puppies should be at 8 weeks old before leaving their birth family. No matter the age you adopt, you'll need to invest time to train and condition your new family member to be a great dog.

A young puppy (2 to 5 months) is needy. The world is overwhelming when you've only just arrived. Young pups have little ability to self-regulate, need a routine housetraining schedule and reassurance. Older puppies have more confidence and bladder control, but require training and socialization to understand how to fit in. A more mature dog may possess better impulse control and have learned good manners in their last household. Or not. Whether you find your dog at a local shelter, from an individual or breeder, or on the Internet, find out as much as you can before you adopt your dog or puppy. If possible, try to speak with the caregiver and meet the dog in person before committing your heart. Do your homework and be cautious of any online promises; don't be misled by a pretty face!

4. Male or Female

Once again, I've loved both! A dog's sex is less important than the dog's personality. In some breeds, a neutered male is the mellow member and in others, the females can be a bit more aloof. Regardless of the sex you choose, plan to spay or neuter them within the first year. Pet over-population is a terribly sad problem, but one that is preventable.

5. Picking One From Many

When you go to choose a dog or puppy, brace yourself. Whether you're choosing a puppy from the litter, a dog from the shelter, or you're looking for love on the Internet, you'll be hard-pressed to choose just one. While I'm hardly the poster child for a single-dog household (we share our lives with four), I recommend choosing one new dog or puppy at a time. A single dog or puppy will bond to you rather than to each other, and pick up human routines faster -- from housebreaking to basic commands.

As you make your selection, envision how a dog or puppy's reactions will play out in your home. Do you love the wild one who's throwing himself on the side of the enclosure and straining to break free? How will you feel when he's scaling your screen door? Does your heart go out to the pitiful puppy cowering behind his littermates? I feel for these timid puppies too, but they suffer in chaotic or unpredictable households. If you've got kids, choose a more mellow temperament. How a puppy acts when you meet him or her will be a measure of how they will act when you bring them home.

Take your time to think through what will work best for your lifestyle. This is the one shot you have in choosing a family relative! My website, as well as others, offers a puppy or temperament test you can download, print out, and bring with you when selecting your forever dog. Good luck!

For more by Sarah Hodgson, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.