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What's the best dog? (And what does that mean?)

A week or so ago, several friends (also professional dog trainers) and I were discussing our "ranks" of purebred dogs. We defined this as the most versatile, easy to live with, most likely to be successful in an "average" household. I feel like I'm using lots of quotation marks here, but I think we can all objectively agree that there's no way to define the best dog for every household, as there are just too many factors at play. But if we're being honest, a vast majority of the work we do as dog trainers is essentially working on fitting a square peg into a round hole: the client has a dog that is inappropriate for their wants, needs, or lifestyle, and we are engaged in a bid to make the situation work. I want to be clear that I am in NO WAY aiming to disparage the scores of wonderful clients out there; part of what I love about this job is the challenge of assisting with family dog issues. But in a perfect world, we (trainers, breeders, rescues, veterinarians, and clients) would magic up an easy way to efficiently and effectively sort out pairing folks with the appropriate dog so fewer of these issues arise.

Behold the noble Jagdterrier, a dog that pretty much all dog people will agree is lousy for the average household.

While my colleagues and I didn't fully agree on the dogs we each chose, I'm putting forth the dogs that I view as most versatile, easy to live with, and most likely to be successful in an "average" household. This is based on 16ish years of professional dog training and working elsewhere in the field, not on any hard science. The caveat here is that, of course, I haven't met EVERY SINGLE DOG BREED OUT THERE, and there are always exceptions (to date, one of the most aggressive dogs I've ever seen was a golden retriever), so roll with me on this kind of very nerdy party game, okay?

Kate's Rank of Best Dogs for the Average Family, by CKC Group

Group 1 - Sporting

English Cocker




My beautiful Gilda, Kayenna's Kerrygld Buttercream, a nearly perfect specimen of Golden.

Please notice that the retrievers are in my top four, but at the bottom. Why? Everybody loves a retriever! Well, everybody loves a six year old retriever. Retrievers are frequently challenging puppies, bitey and mouthy and into everything. Many retrievers I see now are substantially oversized, which makes them physically difficult to handle before they're trained. And the males, especially, are slow to mature. My Golden Retriever, Gilda, is in breed standard at about 55 lbs., and while I've always loved her dearly, I didn't find her really fun to train until about 18 months. Sit with that for a minute!

The English Cocker has a delightful disposition, is a lovely medium size, intelligent, game for most sports or for hanging out / neighbourhood walks / playing with kids, and has reasonably robust health. Why an English Cocker and not an American? Primarily because they're not as popular, and therefore not subject to as many of the poor breeding practices and ubiquitous health issues their American cousins are. That said, I know some exceptional American Cocker breeders, so if that's what you're on the hunt for, they're out there! Brittanys hit second place in this category for being one of the most versatile overall dogs; whether you want to hunt, run agility, take neighbourhood walks, have a service dog, or are looking for a new career sniffing out bedbugs, these guys can do it all and then snuggle at the end of the day.

Group 2 - Hounds




CH Stardax I'm Coming Out, aka Disco. Resident Canidapt Dachshund extraordinaire!

Is it a little self-serving to have a Dachshund on this list, especially since they're so high on the list of reported bites in the US? Probably. But I've known hundreds of Dachshunds, and the majority are really good family dogs. They have a relatively low exercise requirement - throwing a ball in the house is plenty for many of them - they're happy to snuggle on the couch or in the bed, and many love children. To those who know me even in passing, it's not much of a surprise that hounds are my favourite dogs, but I'm keenly aware that a hound isn't for everyone. That said, there's a reason that the Beagle is known as the "every dog" (Snoopy, anyone?). Great with the whole family, love kids, wonderful with other dogs, down for an adventure or a snooze on the couch. I've seen Beagles run agility, do disc and flyball, excel at scent detection, hike, run, wrestle with a herd of children. A well-bred Beagle is a true gem.

So why a Whippet? I think Whippets are underrated dogs. You'll see as we proceed that my list leans heavily towards medium-sized dogs, probably because that's what most people actually want but few people actually get. Whippets are true comedians, super fun to train, pretty hearty, great at sports, and look great in a fancy sweater or collar. Fashionable AND functional, I'm into it.

Group 3 - Working

Bernese Mountain Dog

Portuguese Water Dog

Greater Swiss Mountain Dog

Doberman Pinscher

"Kate, didn't you just extol the virtues of the medium-sized dog for like twenty paragraphs above?" Yes, yes I did. So why did I pick a large, hairy beast for my top Working group dog? Because the majority of Berners that I meet are friendly, cheerful, bright, down-for-anything, and super adaptable to their living situations. Of course I've met a few that were outliers - extra energetic or exceptionally vocal - but for the most part, this is a sweet, fun breed of dog. I hope you like to vacuum.

My training partner and bestie Sarah-Jane's PWD, CH Baywood Nauti By Nature RN ATD UPAT SPAT, aka Caper. His name suits him!

The Portuguese Water Dog is coming up more and more as an alternative to the doodle, which I guess I understand if only for the low-shed, wavy to curly coat. These dogs are significantly smaller than Berners, but pack a lot of punch; the PWDs I know have fairly significant exercise requirements, but make up for it with their versatility in the sporting department. The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog makes the list for being a lovely family dog that isn't mentioned much, Swissies have a lot of the same attributes of the Berner (though not simply a smooth-coated version) with slightly better health and longevity. My colleagues wanted to know which of the "scary looking dogs" was my pick here, and I chose the Doberman. I love their dorky personalities, their big brains, and how fun they are to work. I see a little less dog aggression with Dobes than with Rottweilers, my other favourite dog that provides scary dog privilege. And while neither Dobes nor Rottweilers are known for their exceptionally great health, I do see generally better longevity with Doberman Pinschers.

Group 4 - Terriers

Wheaten Terrier

Border Terrier

Norfolk/Norwich Terrier (tie)

Hammer, Orca, and Relish, all bred by my friend Megan of Versaterre Border Terriers. Outstanding examples of the breed in looks and temperament!

Sing it with me now, folks, "God loves a terrier..." (If you haven't seen Best In Show and you've bothered to read this far into a long-winded blog post, stop what you're doing and go view this cinematic masterpiece.)

Wheaten Terriers, the dog I'll argue all day and night are more suitable for most families than a Lab! One of the true medium sized dogs, these comedians are adorable, delightful dogs that also enjoy dog sports, swimming, hiking, and generally being underrated family pets. They do have a reasonably high grooming requirement, and some are less dog-friendly than others, but I think that's a solid tradeoff for most single-dog families to get to live with a dog known for a "Wheaten Greetin'."

Border Terriers are a somewhat less known member of the Terrier group, but wildly fun little guys with more personality than seems possible to fit into their little bodies. Somewhat slower to mature than other terriers, these dogs are pretty much up for anything, and are generally really good with children. Similarly, the Norfolk and Norwich terriers have big personalities in little bodies, with the added charm of a bit more of the traditional "terrier" look that so many people find irresistible. Don't let that fool you, though, both the Norfolk and Norwich are admirable sporting breeds as well as eye candy.

Group 5 - Toy

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Japanese Chin

Toy Poodle

Cherry, a CKCS pup belonging to my friend and mentor Tracy, practices relaxing on her platform.

I struggled with this group because I deeply love Toy breeds, having grown up with a Maltese, and it pains me to see how so many of these breeds have been significantly damaged by reckless commercial breeding. So as I discuss some of these dogs, it's important to note that my focus, in this blog post and in life, is on well-bred dogs from reputable breeders.

Which brings us to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (CKCS). One of the only breeds I can say without hesitation I've never met a nasty one of, the CKCS is a sweet, happy mop of a dog. Less excellent members of the breed can tend towards being shy, but most are outgoing and gentle. This breed is suffering a health crisis, which gave me complex feelings about putting it at the top of my list, but reputable breeders and rescuers are working hard to participate in and fund research to improve the health of the breed. (See and to learn more about breed health and the work being done to improve it.) The good breeders are out there, health testing, and working hard to bring us better Cavaliers, and that tickles me pink, because I want to see more of these delightful Muppets.

When I picked a Japanese Chin, I guess I showed my hand as a lover of the brachycephalic - or smooshy-faced - dog, even though it comes with complex ethical issues. The Chins I have known have been wonderfully suited to life with a family or a single senior, gleefully doing sports or being couch ornaments (with some playtime in the house, of course!). Next to the Cavalier and Chin, the Toy Poodle probably seems like a left field choice, but Poodles really are amongst the most versatile breed in every size category, and cute to boot.

Group 6 - Non-Sporting

Poodle (either size)


Bichon Frisé


The Noodley One FDC CAX FCAT CGCA CGCU TKI ATT RATM, aka Noodle, owned by my dear friend Heather. It doesn't hurt to take up grooming if you're going to own a Poodle.

I found these last two groups quite challenging. I have had poor experiences with several breeds in the Non-Sporting group, ranging from clients who've spent upwards of five figures on vet bills for various genetic health issues, to behaviour consults for reactivity, to getting attacked by a member of this breed group in the only dog bite incident I've ever had. Needless to say, those breeds didn't make my list.

On to greener pastures, there are a good number of friendly and fun dogs for the average household here, too! The Moyen and Standard Poodles have been cross-bred with every breed known to man, but I'm here to preach "want a doodle? get a poodle!" More predictable disposition, more predictable coat texture and shedding (that is to say, almost none), health testing and longevity. Poodles make great service and therapy dogs, sport dogs, and everything else dogs! You can shave them bald or grow them out into fun cuts! Dye them pink! Poodles have lost popularity in recent years, but I'm happy to see them coming back.

The Lowchen and Schipperke are lesser-known breeds and harder to find, but both a nice compact size, easy to travel with, and down for adventure. They have very different personalities, but they're worth looking into if you want a breed that's a little off the beaten path and likes to make you laugh. Fun fact: I once went on a second date with a fellow mainly because he had a Schipperke.

Most people recognise a Bichon, but many people don't know that these sturdy little pooches excel not only at being lap dogs, but at lots of sports, too. Bichons at their best should be outgoing, friendly, spunky pups, but finding a breeder who puts time and energy into exceptional breeding dogs and early socialisation is critical.

And last but not least...

Group 7 - Herding Dogs

Smooth Collie

Spanish Water Dog

Icelandic Sheepdog

Polish Lowland Sheepdog

Boy howdy did I catch some grief for my selections here! Let me first say to my Border Collie friends, heck yes, I love your dogs, they're the best. I just don't think a Border Collie is the right dog for most households (and I'm pretty sure you agree with me). They tend to be a little twitchy, aloof, and not exceptionally great with kids. Australian Shepherds didn't make the list because they tend to trend shy (challenging with a family), or, worse, exceptionally barky (look, my beloved Basset Hounds aren't on the list either, okay?).

The Smooth Collie is kind of unusual looking, but a good one is very handler-oriented, friendly, and of stable disposition - so much so that we see them used as service dogs more often than you might think! You might think Lassie with a buzz cut, but I think sleek, elegant, and ready to engage.

Spanish Water Dog CH AGMCHV Brasenia Concurrido Chasin Ewe CGN IPV CD HS RE AGX AGXJ , aka Chase. Described by his owner, my friend Marnie, as a "once in a lifetime dog."

My last three breeds aren't making top ten lists of popularity any time soon, which I'm sure breed enthusiasts are happy about, but for families that are eager for a herding breed, they're each worth a look. The Spanish Water Dog is a lovely medium size, fun and funny, whip-smart, and versatile in the truest sense. Icelandic Sheepdogs are perky and friendly, lively and fun to work but compact enough that they can be exercised in a house and yard (in a pinch), and have supermodel good looks. And lastly, the Polish Lowland, an absolutely charming and bright dog with elegant looks and a silky coat that can be kept long or trimmed into a darling puppy cut, almost retriever-like in affection but less size and arguably more fun to train with.

If you have your heart set on another breed, this list is in no way meant to deter you. But meet some of the dogs before you commit - dog shows are a great way to do this. If you're interested in competing in conformation, make sure that a breeder will mentor you, and equally importantly, make sure you like the people in the breed, because they're your new weekend companions. Talk to breeders, talk to trainers, vets, and groomers, and make sure you ask about the downsides of the breed as well as all the things that are great. Be realistic about what you can and can't manage in a dog, what you're happy to work around (like shedding, or not), and what your absolute dealbreakers are (howling, drool, chasing your cat, etc). Don't just ask about health testing, ask to see the results. Set yourself up for success before you even bring that puppy home, and everything will go more smoothly!

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