When I was a kid and my parents decided to get a family dog, I was elated. But when we brought him home – a white, adorable miniature poodle that I named Baby in a classic rendition of why you shouldn’t let your child name your dog – I was terrified of him. On his very first night, we had a standoff in the living room as he tried to affirm his dominance, and I cried as he barked at me and tried to make his way to the sofa. I honestly didn’t think we ever would get along, and I told my parents we made a terrible mistake in getting him. He cried in his crate all night, peed and pooped all over the house, and refused to come in the house when he was called unless you had a treat in your hand. But, eventually, he fell for us and us for him. Baby was sassy, bratty, and quickly ruled the roost; his name fit him perfectly and we doted on him.
Fortunately, Baby and our family made it work despite us being pretty inexperienced with dogs. We had a nice sized house, 3+ acres of outdoor space, and flexible school and work schedules. But choosing the best dog for your family can be stressful, and if you’re anything like my family, it can feel like a disaster. Luckily for you, it’s a path well-worn by families before yours. Here are a few tips and things you need to consider in order to make the best choice for your family and your dog.
Ask yourself some questions before getting a dog
Where do you live?
I have a pitbull boxer named Henry who has a lot of energy. While I live in an apartment now and plan on buying a house in the semi-near future, I try my best to exercise him as often as I can to offset the lack of space he has in the apartment. All dogs need exercise, but large breed dogs especially need room to roam and play.
What’s your schedule?
Growing up, my parents both worked while my brother and I were in school. They fed the dogs in the morning and my brother and I took care of them after school. That worked for us, but not all families have that flexibility due to after-school activities, sports schedules, and family vacations. When adopting a dog, it’s important to think about your schedule to make sure you know you can give her the time she deserves.
Can you afford her?
Dogs are expensive. When I was a kid, I was there for the vet visits and the grooming appointments, but I certainly wasn’t paying for them. Now that I have my own dog, I am much more aware of how expensive owning and caring for a dog can be. When considering buying a dog, think about the costs of owning one and calculate which breed may be best for you. Large dogs eat a lot and can be expensive to house due to the fact that some places have breed and size restrictions while dogs with curly coats or long hair are more expensive to maintain because they need to go to the groomer more often.
What’s your family like?
Is your family active or reserved? Do you like hikes and outdoor activities or do you prefer quiet nights in by the fire or television? Choosing a dog based on his temperament and how it matches your family’s lifestyle is important. If your dog is shy or has an abusive past, a home with rambunctious kids may scare him. But if your dog prefers running, jumping, and burning off steam, he’ll need a family that matches his active lifestyle.
The best dog breeds for kids and families
Every breed has pros and cons (and some pros for one family may be cons for another), but based on health, grooming, and exercise, I’ve picked six great family dogs for you to consider.
Pros: affectionate, family-friendly, patient, intelligent, loyal
Cons: short life spans and shedders
"Not only are they obedient and intelligent, they are also easily contented, whether playing outdoors or spending time with children indoors," says Dr. Denise Petryk, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Business Administration. "Their trainability is just one of the many reasons they are used as therapy and assistance dogs, as well as tracker and sniffer dogs."
In regards to maintenance, golden retrievers have a water-repellant double-coat that sheds seasonally and needs regular brushing and weekly upkeep. Their grooming costs are typically high. Fortunately, they are a generally healthy breed, so their vet costs will be low — however, there are studies underway to uncover why they die from certain cancers more than any other dog breed.
Golden retrievers are also perfect for active families; they are energetic and need daily exercise.
Pros: friendly, outgoing, playful, protective, reliable
Cons: destructive and shedders
"There’s nothing that a Lab loves more than to show off by learning a new trick, even if they manage to learn that new trick before you’ve taught it to them. They are canine Einsteins," says Cesar Milan, dog behavior specialist on his web site.
According to the AKC dog ranking, labs are the most popular dog breed in America. They play well with others and are very high-spirited and active. Similar to golden retrievers, they’re a healthy breed, but they’re also shedders and require regular grooming maintenance. They’re kind, happy, good-natured and easygoing. Labs are dependable — you can trust them with every member of your family — and they love to run and play with kids.
Pros: dignified, amusing, sturdy, easygoing, patient
Cons: stubborn and short life spans
"Both English bulldogs and French bulldogs are known to be calm, courageous, and friendly," says Joel Silverman, expert dog trainer and industry veteran.
On his website, Milan says bulldogs are not picky about where they live – both apartments and houses work for them – and they are very low-key. Ranked by the AKC as the fourth most popular dog breed, bulldogs are trustworthy and charming – true gentlemen and scholars. Since they are even-tempered and easygoing, you can trust them with your kids. They love socializing and make great companions. Bulldogs require minimal grooming and exercise and are generally a healthy breed. However, due to various genetic health issues, bulldogs do have short life spans and tend to only live eight to ten years.
Pros: lovable, easygoing, curious, energetic, friendly
Silverman says beagles offer companionship and their playful disposition and curiosity are perfect for children.America’s favorite dog, Snoopy, is a beagle, so it’s no surprise that beagles rank as the fifth most popular dog breed.
They have short coats so their grooming maintenance is low-key, but because they are quick and energetic, they do best with active families. On his web site, Milan says they also make good nannies – especially at bedtime getting everyone to their rooms – but their howling can drive you mad.
**Pros:**playful, charming, loyal, intelligent, friendly
"Particularly suited to large families, they don’t complain too much when manhandled by children, and can actually help teach kids how to properly relate to dogs," says Milan on his website. "Plus they’re just very cute and adorable."
My boyfriend likes rough housing with Henry, and dogs that play while remaining calm – like bull terriers – are a dime a dozen. However, since they are high-energy and super active, if they don’t receive enough physical and mental exercise, they can be destructive. Be sure to socialize them and provide plenty of attention and structure so they don’t destroy the house. The best thing about bull terriers, though? They’ll tire your kids out and protect your household.
Pros: unique, energetic, healthy, playful, cheap
"From the Labradoodle (Labrador and Poodle), Puggle (Pug and Beagle) and Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle), there is a huge range of mixed breeds covering all shapes and sizes," says Dr. Petryk. "One reason for mixing breeds is that they combine the much-loved traits of particular dogs, and are said to be healthier and less susceptible to hereditary diseases."
Since I am a huge advocate to #adoptdontshop dogs, I love mixed breed dogs and was pleasantly surprised to find them on lists for best family dogs. Henry is mixed breed, and I love how distinct he looks and his varied personality. When I adopted him, I was told he is a pitbull-boxer, but no one knows for sure. Henry was super cheap because I adopted him from a shelter and he requires little maintenance – grooming or vet.
However, if you’re considering a mixed breed dog, Milan writes that it’s important to match the energy level of your dog and to choose a mid-size or large dog: "If you have children, avoid Chihuahuas or Yorkies or anything you could pick up with one hand; look at terriers, retrievers, or other bigger dogs. In general, if you’re not afraid of injuring it by stepping on it, then it’s probably durable enough for children."
Some honorable mentions for family dogs are also shih tzus due to their gentleness and affection, German shepherds because of their intelligence and trainability, and vizslas because of their loyalty and affection.
While I do believe choosing the right breed based on temperament and lifestyle is important and doing proper research is imperative, I also believe any dog can be great for your family with proper training and attention. If you include your family throughout the whole process – finding the best dog and then naming, training, and spending time with her – any breed can be a wonderful family dog.
Image: Jonnie Andersen