Obtaining Preselection Advice Before Getting a Dog

By Cecile Ashen-Young

The ideal first step for anyone interested in acquiring a companion dog is to seek out pre-selection advice from a qualified individual such as a veterinarian, a veterinary behaviourist, or a qualified and experienced dog trainer. Unfortunately, this happens far too infrequently. Many people acquire a dog with little forethought as to breed, age, financial cost, or time cost. They simply do not consider the advantages of obtaining pre-selection counselling.


For those people who do take advantage of pre-selection counselling, the first questions to cover are why they want a dog and what their expectations are of the dog (Landsberg, Hunthausen, & Ackerman, 1997). The reasons and expectations may vary: appearance (e.g. Shih-tzus are adorable), as protection (e.g. the single caregiver), as a replacement for a deceased dog, as a companion for another dog, as a companion for children, or even as a running partner. In some cases, the reasons for getting a dog and a prospective caregiver’s expectations of dog ownership may not be realistic. The adorable Shih-tzu may require expensive grooming, the Alsatian may turn out to be unmanageable, the existing dog may not actually want a live-in friend, and the children’s ‘companion’ may be too much for the toddler.

In fact, unrealistic expectations of dog ownership and a lack of basic knowledge about canine behaviour and needs are among the top reasons for the relinquishment of pet dogs to animal shelters, with a high percentage of relinquishing owners having acquired their dog without any prior planning or advice (Diesel, Brodbelt, & Pfeiffer, 2009). Common reasons given by relinquishing owners often revolve around incompatibility with existing pets and children, insufficient resources dedicated to caring for the dog, and knowledge deficits about canine behaviour (Diesel, Pfeiffer,& Brodbelt, 2008; Fournier & Geller, 2004; New et al., 2000a; Salman et al. 1998; Scarlett et al., 1999).

Pre--selection counselling can help prospective owners to formulate realistic expectations of dog ownership by providing current advice and information on several topics. These topics should include which breed or breed mix might best suit the potential caregiver’s lifestyle and household composition, an updated understanding of the behaviour of dogs, the basic care needs of dogs, and the most trustworthy sources for dogs.

In terms of a suitable breed type, it may be assumed that because most breeds have been selected over time for a specific function, certain patterns of behaviour have become more pronounced in certain breeds. However, it is important to consider that dog breeds are actually artificial categories that change over time, and that breed-specific patterns of behaviour represent only a small percentage of the whole phenotype of the breed. In fact, there is considerable variation in behavioural expression within any given breed (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001; Jensen, 2007; Miklosi, 2007).  The prospective caregiver should always be advised that a dog is a dog first and a breed second, and that all dogs, regardless of breed, are individuals. If the client has already decided on a specific breed, s/he should be disabused of inappropriate expectations of the dog based on breed:  that this dog will be just like the dog of the same breed they had at some time in the past; that all Golden Retrievers make wonderful family pets; that all Alsatians make good ‘guard’ dogs. At the same time, they should gather information on documented breed-specific behavioural and health problems, preferably from their veterinarian.

Most dog owners have a poor ability to correctly read and identify dog behaviours. This is particularly relevant if the dog develops behaviours that are not compatible with expectations and that the caregiver comes to perceive as too costly (Blackwell et al. 2008; Hilby et al. 2006; Patronek et al, 1996). General knowledge deficits leading to misunderstandings of dog behaviour and how to address potentially problematic behaviours can tip the balance between the costs of dog ownership and the expected benefits of dog ownership, and this can undermine the human-dog relationship. Information acquired through pre-selection counselling about canine behaviour and evidenced-based training methods can serve to mitigate these knowledge deficits and ultimately strengthen the human-dog bond (Diesel, Brodbelt, & Pfeiffer, 2009; Prudic, 2012; Weiss et al. 2014).

The prospective caregiver should have a realistic understanding of the basic care needs of dogs, including their health and grooming needs, exercise needs, and training needs. Studies in the USA and Australia found that personal issues ranked among the top three reasons given for relinquishment of pet dogs to shelters (Marston, Bennett, & Coleman, 2004; Scarlett et al., 1999). Two of the reported personal issues suggest inappropriate owner expectations possibly leading to poor planning. The first was that the dog required too much effort and time, and the second was related to children in the family: either the introduction of a new baby into the household or conflict between the dog and an existing child in the household. Therefore, the basic care needs of dogs should be carefully assessed based on the client’s lifestyle (active or sedentary) and available resources (time, money, and space), both at present and for the next 10 to fifteen years (Overall, 1997). For example, the lifestyle, resources, and priorities of a young couple will almost certainly change when they start a family.


The source of the dog is another important consideration. A reputable breeder is an excellent first option (Landsberg, Hunthausen, & Ackerman, 1997). Reputable shelters and rescue organizations may also be a reasonable option provided they are well-resourced, have evidenced-based care guidelines in place that optimize the quality of life of the dogs in their care, assess the dogs using validated behavior assessment tests, only rehome dogs that are safe for the general community, provide post-adoptive support, and sterilize all dogs before they are rehomed. Sources that should be avoided include backyard breeders, newspaper advertisers, and pet stores.

When considering adding a companion puppy or dog to your household, it is important to take the time to make a considered, researched choice. Seek advice from several sources: seek breed advice from registered breeders, health advice from veterinarians, and training and behaviour advice from qualified trainers and behaviour counsellors. Evaluate the advice carefully and consider its relevance to you, your family, your lifestyle and your expectations.

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