Selecting a Successor

A French Bulldog? . . . Cavalier King Charles Spaniel? . . . Corgi? . . . Golden Retriever? . . . Norwegian Elk Hound? . . . Collie? . . . Bernese Mountain Dog? . . . Chow Chow?

Axel Munthe (1857–1949), the beloved author of The Story of San Michele (1929) and, unsurprisingly, an early advocate of animal rights, wrote this about dogs: “They are all representatives of the most lovable and, morally speaking, most perfect creation of God. If you loved your dead friend in the right way, you cannot do without another.”

Sparky, Linda Heller’s black and white Cocker Spaniel, had had a long and happy life, but when he died a few months ago at age sixteen, his owner was understandably distraught.

However, when I ran into her on Madison Avenue one recent morning, Linda had started to consider Sparky’s successor. Should this next best buddy be a Cocker Spaniel as well or should it be another breed?

Years ago, English Bulldogs had been my own breed of choice when I daydreamed about a canine companion. And then, after a while, I started to consider Golden Retrievers and then Afghan Hounds, Border Terriers, then Beagles.

But wait a minute.

When the time came that having a dog was a real possibility, that I was free to adopt the first actual successor to Rebel, my childhood Cocker Spaniel, there were certain practical issues to be addressed.

Having a rather active social life at that point in my life, it seemed to be a good idea to have a dog who was more or less portable. That is to say, it should be a breed that would not frighten taxi drivers and that would be content and easy to deal with in a canvas sack as we rode out of the city together on Metro North or the Long Island Railroad.

Unfortunately, that left out the Bulldogs, Goldens, and Afghans.

Also to be considered was the fact that I lived in a Manhattan apartment. Certainly the dog chosen would get exercise, but it would be difficult to provide the kind of activity some dogs really required.

Goodbye to the Beagles and Border Terriers.

More and more it looked as if small dog would make the most sense. Alas, I was not particularly drawn to most small dogs.

In those days before the Internet, books were the way to research dilemmas of all sorts, and I started to seriously consult them to look for an answer to the question of which was the best breed for me. It was a fun project actually, reading about all the different dogs, their histories and dispositions, their standards and peculiarities.

And then one day, reading though some breed descriptions, one phrase blinked out at me as if it were written in neon letters: molto in parvo.

A lot in a little.

The breed motto of the Pug.

So I started reading everything I could about Pugs and, indeed, the more I read, the more the breed seemed a wise choice: Learns quickly. Alert. Exceptionally good with children. Stubborn and bold but essentially easygoing. Gentle with everyone. Fairly inactive indoors. Needs little outdoor exercise. Larger, more sturdy and stable than most other toy breeds.

Moreover, it was also said that Pugs did indeed have big dog personalities in relatively small but compact bodies. Exactly what I wanted.

Now, three Pugs and more than thirty years after that initial consideration, the reading and research has irrefutably proven that I went about selecting a breed in the right way and I urge others, like my friend Linda, to take a similar approach.

The single book that proved the most helpful in my particular quest (and one which is still available on is Choosing the Right Dog by John Howe. Dedicated “To Limit, the right dog for me,” the book was first published in 1976 and has one page assigned to each breed and includes a photograph and a detailed description.

Today there are certainly many similar books available and moreover the Internet can come close to bludgeoning you with information.

Once the choice of a breed is decided on, the next step is to learn all you can about what’s out there and available.

Most experts agree that it is unwise at best to buy from a pet shop. You simply don’t know what you’re getting and can end up adopting an overpriced animal with serious health problems. Pet shops also have the unfortunate reputation of sometimes obtaining their animals from puppy mills—those commercial breeding facilities that are operated with an emphasis on profits over the welfare of the animals. A careful study of breed-specific kennels and their reputations is definitely the intelligent alternative and this involves still more research.

Go to dog shows (both general and breed-specific) and talk to as many people involved with your choice of breed as possible. Listen to advice, news, and gossip. Learn which kennels emphasize which traits. (Some German Shepherd breeders, for example, breed for aggressiveness whereas others breed for even-temperedness.) If at all possible, visit some breeders and see how the dogs are treated and how hygienically the facility is maintained. Additionally, every breed has local, national, and even international clubs peopled with enthusiasts. Think about joining one or more of these clubs and listening to the chitchat. There are also breed magazines and newsletters that can provide a lot of useful information and many informative illustrations.

The next step is to decide if you want a puppy or an older dog that is looking for a new home. Puppies, of course, require more training, but sharing those early days adds real substance to the relationship. An older dog will most probably be already trained and the personality traits will be more apparent.

And will it be a male or a female? Do you already have another dog or cat in your household? Are you interested in showing your dog?

Questions, questions, questions.

Tiresome, perhaps, but the quest should be almost as much fun as the eventual adoption and the more information you can glean from answering all these questions, the happier choice you will eventually be able to make.

In today’s world it is almost politically incorrect to opt for a purebred, AKC-certified puppy from an established breeder.

“Why not a rescue?” people will ask, understandably alluding to the enormous problem of unwanted dogs.

Why not indeed? It is certainly an admirable thing to give some unloved creature from a shelter a loving home.

However, for those of us who want to know more about the dog’s background, where he came from, what he’ll grow into, what personality traits he’s likely to exhibit . . . well, a journey into the world of purebred dogs is clearly in order. Personally, I’m a visual person and I want to know what my dog is going to look like in addition to what traits he’ll exhibit. This is only really possible in the world of purebred dogs.

So Linda, if you’re reading this, beware. Choosing Sparky’s successor could take some time. It will involve a lot of research—online, in libraries and bookstores, and in random conversations. But that effort will be well worth it.

After all, Sparky’s successor must be up to his standard. You wouldn’t want it any other way.

Issue Twenty Two