What type of dog is right for you?
For an in-depth guide to different types of dog, we’ve called on the expertise of experienced breeder Sarah Bartlett, author of author of Another Pup.
I grew up with crossbreeds – or mongrels, for want of a better word. We could guess at half of their genetic make-up but the rest was a mystery. Pedigree breeds weren’t commonplace in my area aside from the odd Labrador or Jack Russell.
I was of the opinion that a dog is a dog, and that you make it what you want. I thought they just differ in size, shape, colour and coat type, but breed doesn’t affect much beyond looks. I now see that this is most people’s view, but it really isn’t true. And I cannot stress this fact enough.
We can mould and shape our dogs to a certain extent, but there’s so much we can’t control because they instinctively want to perform certain tasks. Tasks like barking at people walking past or chasing small furry creatures.
All breeds and breed types have been bred in the past for a specific purpose or job, and they still want and need to perform these activities now, even many generations later. These are natural instincts and dogs which are held back from them become problem dogs.
I They can get themselves, and often their owners, into trouble – which is why it’s so important to understand different breed types.
The Seven Breed Types
There are hundreds of pedigree breeds across the world. Over 200 breeds are recognised by the Kennel Club in the UK – and there are many more which aren’t.
All of these breeds fit into seven groups based on a job or role that dogs were originally bred for. Within those groups, each breed was typically bred for a specific task.
For example, did you know the Dobermann was originally the taxman’s dog, bred to protect and intimidate? The Dalmatian was bred to run between the wheels of a horse and carriage for many miles a day. The Rhodesian Ridgeback was bred to hunt lions, the Dachshund to hunt badgers – and the Labrador was originally the fisherman’s dog, long before it was a Retriever on the shooting field.
There are also a few subgroups within each group. I’ll list a few as examples below, though as I can’t list each dog within each category, I’ll stick to a handful of the most well-known.
There are four basic types of gundogs: Spaniels, Pointers, Retrievers and Setters. Naturally active and alert, they make likeable and well-rounded companions. They were first developed to work closely with hunters to find and retrieve quarry, and are known for their excellent instincts in water and woods.
Many of these breeds enjoy hunting and other field activities, and many of them – especially the water-retrieving breeds – have well insulated, water-repellent coats which are quite resilient to the elements.
This is one of the most popular groups in the UK, for good reason. The Spaniel and Retriever breeds in particular are very well suited to the terrain we have in the UK, especially for owners who live in the countryside. They’re also among some of the most sociable and adaptable breeds out there.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
(There are countless other different types of Spaniel, from the Brittany to the Sussex to the Irish Water Spaniel – all in different coat types, colours and sizes and all with slightly different histories and purposes on the shooting field).
HPR (Hunt Point and Retrieve)
German Shorthaired Pointer
There are many more breeds which don’t fit into these three sub-groups. For example, some are bred to hunt and point but not to retrieve, such as English Pointers, Red and White Setters, English Setters and Gordon Setters.
If you have experience with terriers, two primary traits will spring to mind: feisty and energetic. They were bred to hunt, kill vermin and guard their family’s home or barn. Their sizes range from fairly small, as in the Norfolk, Cairn or West Highland White Terrier, to the larger Airedale Terrier (which were originally bred as fighting dogs down the mines).
Prospective owners should know that terriers can make great pets, but they do require determination on the part of the owner. They can be stubborn, have high energy levels, and many require special grooming (known as “stripping”) to maintain a characteristic appearance.
West Highland White Terrier (“Westie”)
Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Staffy”)
Most hounds share the common ancestral trait of being used for hunting. Some use acute scenting powers to follow a trail, while others show phenomenal stamina as they relentlessly run down quarry. Beyond this, however, generalisations about hounds tricky to come by, since the group is quite diverse.
There are Pharaoh Hounds, Norwegian Elkhounds, Afghans and Beagles, among others. Some hounds share the distinct ability to produce a unique sound known as baying. Prospective owners should hear it before deciding to get a hound of their own, to make sure it's their cup of tea.
Sight Hounds (bred to hunt on sight of movement)
Scent Hounds (bred to follow and hunt from a scent)
Also known as the “herding” group, all pastoral breeds share an instinctive ability to control the movement of other animals. They were bred to gather, herd and protect livestock, and the herding instinct in these breeds is so strong that many have been known to gently herd their owners, especially the children of the family.
In general, these are highly intelligent dogs – though intelligence doesn’t necessarily make them easy for us dog owners. Teaching the wrong thing once can often result in the dog never forgetting, and so never learning to do what we actually want.
Today some herding dogs are commonly used for police and protection work, like the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd Dog. Though they may seem to belong in the working group (see below) their original purpose was to be livestock herders as well as guardians.
Pastoral dogs can make excellent companions and respond beautifully to training exercises, as long as they’re trained carefully and given a job or an outlet for their strong herding instincts. They’re rarely suitable for a first-time dog owner.
Old English Sheepdog
Shetland Sheepdog (“Sheltie”)
Utility dogs are made up of a diverse group of breeds with varying sizes, coats, personalities and appearances. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds so it’s hard to generalize about this group. But though the differences in features can be vast, most are good watchdogs and housedogs.
Toy breeds might be short on size, but they’re definitely not short on personality! Breeds in the toy group are affectionate, sociable and adaptable to a wide range of lifestyles. Just don't let their size fool you: they’re smart, full of energy and often have strong protective instincts. Toy dogs are popular in cities because they make ideal apartment dogs.
And a few surprising toy breeds
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Quick to learn, dogs of the working group are intelligent, strong, watchful, and alert. They were bred to assist man and excel at jobs such as guarding property, pulling sleds and performing water rescues. They make wonderful companions, but because they’re large and naturally protective, potential owners need to know how to train and socialise a dog properly. For that reason, some breeds in the working group may not be for the first-time dog owner
Now we’ve looked at the seven groups, I’d like to make a note about so-called designer dogs. Over the last decade, there has been a huge influx of these crossbreeds – the most popular varieties being the Labradoodle and the Cockerpoo.
There’s a common train of thought that these dogs will be healthier. On the contrary, this does not appear to be the case and most I see have some problems. At best, they suffer with recurring ear infections, often due to their mix of coat type and the hair growing in their ear canals. At worst they suffer from serious health issues like hip dysplasia and blindness, due to both their parent breeds being susceptible and the cross breeding increasing that risk.
These are the main things to remember about designer dogs:
- Most breeders of these crosses are not in it for the betterment of a specific breed, and some have got into breeding for a quick buck. They can’t register the puppies to any organisation (at least, none which I consider to be worth the paper they’re written on) and so they don’t have to keep to any rules or guidelines.
- The breeds’ instincts will be mixed and will never result in a 50/50 split.
- Allergies are a very common and expensive issue.
- Crossbreeds are sometimes bought in the hopes they’ll be hypoallergenic or won’t shed – but there’s no guarantee of that. With coat types of two breeds being mixed, the end result is uncertain, and there may only be one in each litter that has these qualities.
- Poodle crosses often have high maintenance coats and will be hard work to keep mat free and comfortable, needing many trips to the grooming salon.
- Health tests should still be done for both parents.
So, what next?
Before taking the plunge and getting a puppy, you should get to know the breed, or breeds, you’re interested in. Join some breed-specific groups on social media and, if possible, attend some group walks, dog shows and maybe even a breed seminar.
You’ll find lots of people there to talk to about the breed, and you’ll learn more about what to look for in the parents of your pup. Breed-specific books will also help you, and I’d encourage you to read those too.
If you’re still keen on the breed after this, then I’d recommend finding some dogs of that breed so you can spend some actual face to face time with them.
This may seem like a lot of work. But planning at the start is the best way to prevent problems down the line – trust me, it’s something every prospective dog owner should do.