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Looking For A New Dog? Here’s How To Decide On The Perfect One

By Kayla Fratt

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Kayla and her dogs, Barley and Niffler.

If you’ve decided that you’re ready for a new dog, you might feel overwhelmed with all of the options out there. You only have so many dogs in your lifetime, so finding the right match is important.

When I worked at the Denver Dumb Friends League shelter, I spent much of my work week helping people find their perfect matches at the shelter. Preparing yourself by knowing what you are looking for will make it easier for shelter staff or breeders make a great match!

Even if you just want a companion dog and aren’t too picky, it’s helpful to specify what you need, want and can live without in your new best friend. For first-time dog adopters or puppy buyers, I strongly recommend making a multi-tiered list of your desired traits.

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For first-time dog adopters or puppy buyers, I strongly recommend making a multi-tiered list of your desired traits… Each dog is a unique individual with different personality traits, energy outlet needs, intelligence, friendliness, health and much more.

It’s not “all in how in how you raise them.” Each dog is a unique individual with different personality traits, energy outlet needs, intelligence, friendliness, health and much more. Your match with a perfect dog is far more than fur-deep!

Below you’ll find a list of traits you may want to consider when looking for your new dog. From this list, try to categorize things into levels of importance. When adopting my dog Barley, I used four tiers: deal-breakers that I absolutely needed, necessary traits that I wanted 90 percent of, desired traits that I really liked and superficial “bonus point” type traits. At the end of this article, I’ll include my exact list for when I selected Barley.

Everyone’s list will look different; if you are hoping for a champion show dog, you may care deeply about nose coloration while if you’re training for agility, the dog’s height matters. Parents will seek a dog with a rock-solid temperament. 

I recommend thinking hard about lifestyle needs as your top priority. If you’re not already an avid hiker and daily runner, a high-energy dog may be an issue; if you don’t already have an interest in training, an extremely smart dog could pose a problem. If you work full-time, have children or like having a lot of guests over, that all needs to play into how you select your next dog.

Here’s an incomplete list of things to consider when deciding on a new dog, and why they may matter:

  • Energy level: if you’re not already an avid runner, a high-energy dog may not be right for you. Don’t get a dog hoping that the dog can do for you what a gym membership couldn’t. Remember that most high-energy dogs need near daily outlets — weekend hikes may not cut it.

  • Trainability: if you’re interested in having a well-behaved companion, in tricks or sports, you want a trainable dog! You’ll still have to step up to the plate to teach your pup, but most people like a dog who’s ready to learn. That said, dogs that identify patterns and learn from them quickly can be challenging for first-time dog owners because they’re quick to develop new habits!

  • Intelligence: a smart dog isn’t necessarily the right fit for everyone. My border collies get bored very easily and we do multiple training sessions every day just to keep them happy. If training isn’t your thing, a smart dog might actually not be what you want.

  • Shedding: allergies and mess matter more to some families than to others.

  • Size: this may be a simple preference, a practical matter given your lifestyle or a requirement based on rental agreements.

  • Age: you may want a mellower, middle-aged (or older) dog or a rambunctious puppy. 

  • Friendliness to your family: dogs described as “aloof” or “protective” or “loyal” may not enjoy friends and family butting in on their one-on-one time with you. Be careful what you wish for!

  • Friendliness to strangers: the above points apply even more to strangers. Many dogs are good with their immediate family and friends but are highly suspicious of, aggressive towards or fearful of strangers. Here’s how to work with overly protective dogs.

  • Adaptability to change: if you’re a renter or enjoy traveling with your dog, you may want to look for a dog who doesn’t mind having his daily routine interrupted.

  • Ability to be left alone: consider if you can afford a dog-sitter or separation anxiety training if your dog cannot be left alone while you work. That said, if you live in a family where multiple members work from home, this may not be a huge concern.

  • Friendliness to other dogs: many dogs aren’t dog park material and, generally, I suggest avoiding dog parks due to their propensity to spread disease and spark fights. However, you may still want to find a dog who can tolerate canine visitors or meet up with your friend’s dogs.

  • Tolerance of children: if you’re a parent, a dog who can tolerate reasonable behavior from children is a must. This doesn’t mean that any dog should be forced to endure being treated like a jungle gym!

  • Interest in a given activity: if you’re a runner, cuddler or paddle-boarder, you may want to seek out a dog who enjoys those activities too! I personally prefer dogs who enjoy fetch and swimming.  

  • Propensity to roam: if you don’t have an ultra-secure fence or the time to go out with your dog whenever they need, a dog who likes to scale fences and roam may not be a good fit. However, if you live in an apartment and have to take your dog out on-leash anyway, this might not be a concern.

  • Predatory instincts: avid hikers or small-animal lovers may prefer to avoid dogs who like to chase and kill small things.

  • Looks: of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to have preferences based on your dog’s looks. I prefer dogs with a fluffy coat and pointy ears; it’s just my thing. If you love that big pit bull grin or those huge papillon ears, let that partly guide your search!

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Now that you have a starter list of what matters, start organizing by importance. Work with other decision-makers in your family to make a true wishlist! Try to keep everything in perspective, too. If a dog doesn’t check every single box on your list but is really close, it may still be the right dog for you.

Now that you have a starter list of what matters, start organizing by importance. Work with other decision-makers in your family to make a true wishlist! Try to keep everything in perspective, too. If a dog doesn’t check every single box on your list but is really close, it may still be the right dog for you. As you see from my list below, my dog Barley is male, doesn’t have a curly tail and has floppy ears. But he hit all of my more important points, so I took him on anyway and he’s been absolutely perfect for me.

My original dog selection spreadsheet is summarized below. I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t adopt a dog that scored below 90 “points.” If a dog didn’t meet deal-breaker criteria, I didn’t even consider it. That said, I also worked at a large animal shelter at the time so I was able to be extra selective. If you live in an area with a smaller shelter population, you may have to be more flexible in your search.

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Kayla and Barley.

Deal-Breakers:

  • Needs to get along with (read: won’t eat) my parrot

  • Work/brewery friendly

  • Dog friendly

  • Able to be alone for eight hours

  • Loves fetch

  • Healthy

  • Hiking buddy material

Necessary Traits (10 points each):

  • Between 6 months and 4 years old

  • Food-motivated

  • Well-socialized

  • Attentive in training

  • Quiet in kennel

  • No separation anxiety

  • Chemistry (basically, if I really liked the dog, this matters!)

  • Training Flow State (basically, the dog was fun for me to train)

Desired Traits (5 points each)

  • Likes water

  • Dog-park friendly

  • Over 30 pounds

Superficial Traits (1 point each)

  • White toenails

  • Curly tail

  • At least a little fluff

  • Female

  • Pointy Ears

You’ll notice that my score sheet mostly started with lifestyle needs — I simply could not bring home a dog that was a danger to my existing pet or that would require expensive daycare while I worked. As a trainer, I also highly valued a dog who could join me at demonstrations and seminars. Lower on the list, you’ll find my personal preferences in looks. It’s ok to have preferences in looks, but think about lifestyle needs first!

The right dog is worth the wait! Expect your search to take time!


In this next piece, I cover how to vet a dog based on what the website says, speaking to shelter staff and meeting the dog yourself.


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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