Some people take a long time to find the right dog. Others say their dog found them. Often the reason you want a dog determines where you'll look.
Do you want to fill an empty nest, to keep the kids company, to enter competitions, or just because you happen to have room for another dog? Or, are you a dog aficionado, a person who admires a certain breed or the marvelous mutt – someone who absolutely can't do without canine companionship and the opportunity to watch him learn and grow?
How long you search for your dog depends upon your needs and personality. Experienced dog owners already know the characteristics they want in a dog. Rookie dog owners, or people whose circumstances have changed, may have to do some research and shop around a bit more. Besides mixed and cross breeds, there are more than 140 pure breeds from which to choose.
The Internet makes it easier to get information and find breeders, shelters, rescue groups and other sources. But you'll still have to "interview" a dog in person before you two agree to be friends for life.
Finding a Purebred
If you want a certain breed, find a responsible breeder. That's someone who raises a manageable number of dogs and who's in it because he's committed to preserving and improving the breed. A responsible breeder strictly limits the number of litters produced by any one female. This breeder will interview you as carefully as you interview him or her. You also will pay a considerable amount for your dog because the breeder's expertise and interest in each pet often goes back generations.
You can begin your search for a responsible breeder by visiting the American Kennel Club's site at www.akc.org. It lists committed dog people in every state who can help refer you to an appropriate breeder. You also might enjoy attending a dog competition for the breed. Talking with people at such events may give you leads.
Avoid Pet Stores
Puppy mills abound. In them, stacks and stacks of poorly ventilated cages typically hold depressed, over-bred mothers. Their offspring may be sick and neglected, denied proper mothering, as well as human interaction and socialization. Irresponsible breeders are in their cruel business to make a buck and often disregard breed standards. The worst genetic weaknesses are usually perpetuated in their dogs.
Puppy mills sell their dogs to brokers who sell them to pet stores. If you buy even the cutest puppy from a pet store, you may contribute to horrid, inhumane practices. Imagine the heartbreak and guilt you'll feel if you have to return your puppy to the store, or if your ill-bred canine suffers from inherited flaws for his entire life. Similarly, be suspicious of "backyard breeders" who advertise in newspapers. Demand impeccable references.
Breed Rescue Groups
Breed rescue groups are networks of dog lovers who take in homeless dogs of a certain breed. These pets have been displaced for all the usual reasons – because of an owner's death or divorce, or because they were unwanted or abandoned. A rescue group member fosters the dog and provides veterinary care, training, grooming and companionship until an appropriate adopter can be found. Dogs of all ages are available through breed rescue groups, also listed on the AKC site. Some have had the happiest of lives; others may have been poorly trained or bred. The foster owner will fill you in on the dog's needs to determine if you are qualified and willing to adopt such a pet.
The plight of racing greyhounds, for example, has been improved by intense, well-organized breed rescue group efforts on a national level. Once put down when their racing days ended, many greyhounds now find second lives as gentle, affectionate house pets recommended for homes with children.
A fair percentage of dogs that are trained to assist people with hearing, seeing and movement disabilities don't quite make the grade. Though unable to meet extremely high standards, these would-be service dogs still make great pets, such as the "Fabulous Flunkouts" of the National Education for Assistance Dog Services in Princeton, Mass. Because so much care and training has been invested in them, adopting such dogs may require several hundred dollars as a donation to the charity. You'll have to network to locate them, and that includes contacting facilities near you to find if they have "dropouts." The Delta Society Web site (www.deltasociety.org) lists service dog agencies.
If you hope to find a crossbreed or mix, even if you have your heart set on an older purebred dog, start at your local animal shelter. Adopting one of their boarders literally saves a life.
Shelters usually keep close relationships with local breed rescue groups and sometimes run programs to find loving second homes for dogs whose owners can no longer care for them. They might, for example, serve people with AIDS or seniors who can't keep pets in assisted living quarters. You'll find shelters listed in the yellow pages under "animal control," "animal shelter," "humane societies," or on the Internet.
Almost every shelter, breeder and rescue group has a Web site. National networks like www.petfinder.com and www.petshelter.org list links to shelters throughout the country. You can search for the breed you want and usually see pictures and personality profiles of animals up for adoption. But these are not e-mail-order pets. The deal is cinched only after you and the dog meet and you satisfy the agency's requirements. You wouldn't want it any other way.