Dog Breeds – What You Need to Know Before You Adopt a Shelter Dog

by Jonni

Why dog breeds so important when choosing a pet.

Choosing a dog with a personality and temperament that really fits your own may be the most important aspect of choosing the perfect dog for your family, different dog breeds play a big part in that decision. Different dogs think and act differently – some will fit in with your family, and some won’t. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the rules and being housebroken – it’s about how the dog’s personality fits with yours.

I once found a beautiful Brittany spaniel in the local Humane Society that was loving, intelligent, loyal, and fun-loving – the “perfect” dog. But she and I just didn’t get along. We were constantly bickering with each other over the slightest things, like college roommates complaining about each other’s dirty socks.

After about six months I gave her to a family that needed a new dog. A few days later I got a call from the father who thanked me profusely for giving them such a wonderful, well trained dog. I couldn’t believe he was talking about the spaniel I had found so irritating. I have no doubt that Marci was far happier living with a family where her people understood spaniels. If I knew then what I know now about dog breeds, I would have chosen a different dog at the dog pound – and both of us would have been much happier.

Knowing how different dog breeds act and think can help you find a dog that fits your personality. It may take a  bit of research, but in the end it’s the key to finding the perfect dog.

There are two different ways you can go about choosing among the dog breeds that will work for you, in addition to going to the local animal shelter and getting to know each dog that appeals to you.

How to choose a few dog breeds that will work for your family

The first way is to pick one or several general breed groups based on the dogs’ historic roles in human life. The other way is to pick a general category of dogs from the way they tend to interact (or not) with people.

The dog breeds listed on this site are all purebreds for simplicity, but mutts and mixes of two or more breeds, perhaps from two different groupings, can create a wonderful personality and temperament. Add almost any type of dog with a terrier, for instance, and the new genes will temper the terriers’ famous hyperactivity. A greyhound crossed with almost anything will bring a mellow touch to the mix.

The Canine Studies Institute in Aurora, Ohio has found through gene mapping that all dogs can be classified into 10 major groupings, based on their genetic relationships to each other. The following list is from Dog Genome Project, which groups dogs into closely related families.

Click on the links below to learn more about the dogs in these groupings:

Sight hounds
Scent hounds
Working and guard dogs
Toy and companion dogs
Northern dogs
Flushing spaniels
Water Spaniels/retrievers
Herding dogs

The dogs among these different groups are closely related in temperament because they come from ancestral stock that stood out for a particular behavior – a behavior that humans were able to put to work. Humans bred dogs together that would pass on their particular talents, and prevented untalented offspring from breeding. Through years of effort the wild dog was transformed into the beautiful and varied dogs of today.

Remember, unless your chosen dog is a retired senior who spends most of his day sleeping under your desk, he will need to express the behaviors that he has been bred for. He cannot rearrange his own genetic heritage to suit your needs, and your training and patience will do little to temper his instincts. However, older dogs will still display lots of the breed personality, with considerably less physical activity and mischief to go with it. For instance, a family that wouldn’t have the time or patience for a lively, stubborn young pit bull may fall in love with an older bully dog that has slowed down enough to fit in with the family’s lifestyle.

Grouping dog breeds by general personality types.

Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia uses a different grouping of dog breeds than the one we looked at previously. Instead of using the genetic history of the breeds for his categories, he designates seven different groups based on their general personalities. He believes that you will love a dog that has a personality that is similar to your own.
In some cases his groupings agree with the Dog Genome Project’s genetic groups, and in other cases they don’t.

Dr. Coren’s theory is actually quite realistic – there are some dogs and people who just don’t like each other and there are some dogs and people that seem to “click” right from the start. He believes that you will be happiest (and your pooch will be happiest with you) if you choose a dog with your personality in mind. His groupings are:

Friendly and genial

– breeds that generally have this personality trait are Border terriers, cocker spaniels, English setters, golden retrievers and Old English sheepdogs.

Protective, territorial and dominant

– this grouping corresponds with most of the working and guard dogs, including the Rottweilers, bull terriers and boxers, among others.

Spontaneous and audacious

– in this group Dr. Coren lists most of the terrier breeds.

Consistent and home-loving

– Pugs and Pekinese are listed in this group.

Steady, good-natured and tolerant

– this group includes most of the scent hounds, bulldogs, Great Danes and St. Bernards.

Clever and trainable

– this grouping includes those dogs that always find their place at the top of any doggy intelligence test, the Border collies, Doberman pinschers, German shepherds and poodles.

These grouping can be used to narrow your search, but remember that these are generalized traits and characteristics.

As we have discussed before, there will always be puppies – even purebreds, which don’t have the breed’s characteristic instincts, and there will be puppies born with temperaments that fall far outside the expected norm for their breed. But as a general rule, you can expect a Border collie to be good at herding sheep (or children), you can expect a Rottwieler to be assertive and protective, and you can expect a Golden retriever to be a gentle, loving companion who won’t complain overly much if she never gets to hunt – as long as she has a ball to chase or a fitness buddy to run with.

Some dogs fall outside the breed’s temperament standards in a way that may make them better companions for a family.

For instance, pit bulls have been bred for many years to be fighters, and some have genetic tendencies that make them dangerous family pets. However, my mother’s favorite dog was a Staffordshire terrier, sometimes known as an English pit bull, and he was calm and gentle around children and other animals.

Most breed characteristics can be bred out of strain if a breeder takes the trouble to breed for a specific temperament. And probably one puppy out of each litter will just naturally show a personality that is all his own. Breed standards aren’t guarantees of behavior, but they’re a very good guideline.

Therefore, if you are offered an older dog that isn’t in on of the dog breeds you thought you wanted, you may want to get to know him a little better. He may have exactly the personality you need, in a package that looks much different than you expected.

Once you have narrowed your search to a grouping of dogs, either because of the jobs they perform or because of the personalities they usually exhibit, it is now time to do specific research.

You can do this by reading the breed standard of several breeds you may be considering, which you can do online at The AKC groups dogs along slightly different lines than the ones we’ve just discussed, but they are close enough to be highly useful for your research.

An alternative is to read the excellent book by Sara Wilson and Brian Kilcommons, two of the best known dog trainers in America. Their book, Paws to Consider: Choosing the Right Dog for You and Your Family, gives their expert opinions on the best qualities each breed offers, along with the real drawbacks that the AKC breed standards will probably not tell you.

When studying the AKC standards be sure to pay far more attention to the characteristic temperament described in the breed standards than the physical characteristics, unless you really intend to enter your new dog in the show ring. If the standard does not mention temperament or personality, and many of them don’t, you should be able to find websites devoted to the specific breed you’re considering. To find one, just type in the name of the breed in the search bar at

Don’t skip this research because you intend to find a mutt at the pound. Almost all mixed breed dogs have at least one recognizable parent. If he looks more or less like a Golden retriever he will probably love to swim, and he’ll probably chase a ball. He may even have the mellow, happy-go-lucky attitude towards everything life throws at him.

If you would like to know more about mixed dog breeds and their potential personalities and traits, read the excellent book by Brian Kilcommons and Michael Capuzzo, called Mutts, America’s Dogs: A Guide to Choosing, Loving and Living with Our Most Popular Canine.