All dogs share many traits due to their common genetic background. But some dogs have been carefully bred for specialized traits. That factors in to what makes each breed different — along with physical traits. If you’re thinking about adding a dog to the family, it’s important to look into those traits and understand what they might mean in terms of the human/dog relationship.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes seven basic dog groups:
Sporting dogs — such as Cocker Spaniels and Retrievers — work with people to hunt game such as pheasant or ducks. These dogs have been selected for their desire to work with their owners; many also have a strong retrieval instinct. If a puppy is mouthy — always chewing on something … including your hands — he may have the retrieval instinct.
So, right from the start, you’ll need good chew toys to prevent destructive habits from developing. And to keep your dog “honestly” occupied, keep in mind that Retrievers can be taught to help carry laundry, lug firewood or pick up dropped items such as keys. Sporting dogs often do well in obedience and agility.
These dogs tend to be athletic and in need of daily exercise. The exact amount can vary quite a bit. A young male Labrador Retriever may be happiest with a two-mile run, twice a day. A mature Clumber Spaniel is pretty happy with a brisk walk around the block.
The Hound Group is next. There are two types of hounds. Sighthounds (such as Greyhounds or Borzoi) hunt visually and tend to be fast and often a bit aloof. Scent hounds (such as Beagles) hunt with their noses, often work in packs and tend to be quite companionable.
Hounds sometimes march to the tune of a different drummer — their nose! They don’t always see the need for close cooperation and can be a challenge in sports such as obedience or agility. On the other hand, lure coursing and field work are their cup of tea. Scent hounds can be noisy and big diggers; sighthounds are happiest with room to run.
The Working Group has a wide variety of dogs. They range from sled dogs to guarding dogs. Many are quite large. The guarding breeds, such as Mastiffs, can be quite protective and need plenty of socialization. The sledding breeds, which include the Siberian Husky, are happiest when they can run. And I’m talking long runs here, not once around the block. Guarding dogs tend to do a bit better in obedience, while the sledding breeds seem to prefer the more athletic outlet of agility.
When frustrated, guard dogs could become nuisance barkers, and sled dogs might just quietly dig large holes.
The Terriers are dogs designed to “go to earth” (digging out vermin). They’re born hunters and, quite often, they’ll have a streak of independence. They’re very smart dogs. Even so, they may require some finesse during training in order to make them realize most dog sports are team sports.
While some Terriers do end up as couch potatoes, many of them are very active. They can be problem chewers or diggers if not kept busy. And if you also raise exotic rodents, a Terrier may not be the best pet for you!
Non-Sporting is a catch-all group. These dogs are hard to classify. They range from the athletic, energetic Dalmatian, to the gentlemanly French Bulldog. Poodles are one of the best known members of this group (although they actually come from a sporting dog heritage). Many of these breeds are made up of active dogs who do best with plenty of exercise.
Toy Breeds, in general, were developed solely as companions and pets. Their small size makes them perfect for this way of life. But they’re not always a good choice for a family with young, rambunctious children.
Some of the toy breeds have other heritages behind them, such as the Yorkshire Terrier — who could still happily dispatch a rat in the cellar — and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who may hunt sparrows in the garden.
The Herding Breeds are the last AKC group and very dear to my heart. These dogs were developed to help out with livestock control. For the short but tough Corgis, that meant cattle, while the Border Collie is first and foremost a sheep specialist.
These are dogs bred to work as partners with people and they tend to do quite well in obedience and agility. They’re happiest with a job to do and plenty of exercise. They can be problem chewers or barkers if bored.
It’s important to think about the heritage (or multiple heritages of your mixed breed dog) when choosing a pet for your family. If you enjoy competing in many dog sports, a herding or sporting breed might be the ideal choice. If you love winter sports and are thinking of skijoring or sledding, perhaps a working breed would be best.
While our dogs are often versatile enough to work well outside their genetic heritage, it’s wonderful for both of you when you can share some of the fun.