TRIED & TESTED; DOGGED DECISION

All puppies are enchanting, but picking a dog to suit an urban family requires care. Our expert panel advises
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The Independent Culture
WE HAVE been made horribly aware of the dangers of buying pit bull terriers and hybrid wolfdogs, but what breed to choose when looking for a sensible and appealing family pet? Not only do we want our dogs to be clean and quiet, we also expect them to be good with children and happy in a city. The Kennel Club recognises 184 breeds, so the choice is not easy.

Dogs were originally bred for practical purposes, so character, strength and intelligence were the desired characteristics. The past 200 years, however, have seen a move towards breeding for show - size, coat and colour have become of primary importance. Many small breeds were created through repeatedly selecting the smallest of a litter to breed from. Such dogs, which are used to being dependent, can seem spoilt and are often more selective eaters than their larger counterparts, which are closer to nature and very pleased at the sight of food.

Today's dogs rarely exert themselves, mentally or physically. They are fed regularly and kept warm and comfortable in their cosy urban homes. Only occasionally do they encounter wildlife, and they rarely come into contact with any formidable danger that would demand their survival skills. Far from creating happy, contented pets, this lack of challenge is more likely to result in canines with behavioural problems.

When you are buying a pet, you must take the character of the breed into account. The dog trainer Patricia Holden White warns against choosing a dog for looks. "Never pick for beauty alone - and never pick a puppy because you feel sorry for it." She further advises: "Never buy from a puppy farm, market or pet shop; you must see the litter and mother with it. The ideal age is eight weeks." Older puppies, and particularly kennel- reared dogs, have often had insufficient human contact before being brought into the busy alien environment of a family home.

Bearing this in mind, which breed is the right one for you? We asked three specialists to advise.

THE TEST

We asked the Kennel Club to suggest five breeds of dog suitable for an urban family. The panel rated each breed according to its sociability with people, how noisy it is, how easy it is to groom, its general health and the cost of its upkeep, all with city living in mind. Pedigree pups of four of the chosen breeds cost from pounds 200-pounds 300, but a Basenji will set you back at least pounds 500.

THE PANEL

Patricia Holden White, a highly experienced dog trainer; Dr Bruce Fogle, vet and author, whose books include Know Your Dog (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99) and The Encyclopedia of the Dog (from which the photographs on this page are taken, Dorling Kindersley, pounds 25); Colin Tennant, a canine behaviourist who has produced 18 television series and videos on pet care and 10 years ago started the Ickniels Animal Behaviour Centre.

***CAVALIER KING CHARLES SPANIEL

Weight range: 10-18lbs; height range: 12-13 ins; life expectancy: 9 years

"A walking vet's bill," said Colin Tennant, who otherwise rated these little dogs highly. "It's a very good, genial breed, calm and easy-going," he said. Bruce Fogle agreed. "These dog are just as happy on a sofa as in a swamp, elegant, gentle and excellent with children." But he was equally concerned about their health: "Their heart-breakingly high incidence of heart disease leads to a very short life expectancy, for many less than nine years."

Patricia Holden White echoed their fears. "Other than health problems, many of which are the consequence of over-breeding, this is an ideal little dog in an urban situation," she said. "It is biddable, mostly even-tempered, good with children and reasonable to groom, happy with limited exercise, but equally happy to take a good run. But the health element is a very real problem."

*WEST HIGHLAND WHITE TERRIER

Weight range: 15-22lbs; height range: 10-11 ins; life expectancy: 14 years

More than 14,000 Westies were registered in 1994, yet for both Patricia Holden White and Bruce Fogle they were their least favourite of our selection. Patricia Holden White said: "However attractive they are to look at - and they are - most Westies are snappy little terriers. They suffer from skin problems and are quick to nip and to join any foray going. They are not totally reliable in the temperament department."

Colin Tennant disagreed, "I would choose one if I was looking for a small dog. They are cheap to keep, and although they can sometimes be aggressive with other dogs, this can mostly be prevented if they are socialised when young."

**YORKSHIRE TERRIER

Weight range: 5-7lbs; height: around 9ins; life expectancy: 14 years

Despite acknowledging that Yorkshire terriers "are cheap to keep and good in a small flat, as they can exercise indoors, especially with games", Colin Tennant said this was his least favourite breed among our five. "I would not choose a Yorkie because it is not good with children. It also suffers from many hereditary health problems and is generally fragile." His concern about the breed's health was common to all the panel members.

Dr Fogle commented: "These are sparky, tough and resilient little dogs that don't realise they are so small. They can be very pushy and manage to dominate some people by appearing helpless (an excellent scam!)."

Patricia Holden White agreed. "They need significant grooming upkeep - both coat and teeth - and can be very yappy," she said. "But they can also be very entertaining and brave if not spoilt and given enough to do throughout their lives." She also noted that unneutered males can be very randy, "with cushions and feet a speciality".

*****LABRADOR

Weight range: 55-75lbs; height range: 2112-2212ins; life expectancy: 12-14 years

Of the 184 breeds recognised by the Kennel Club, the labrador (more correctly labrador retriever) came top in the number of dogs registered in Britain in 1994. It was our overall winner too, though it was the second choice for two of our three panelists.

Patricia Holden White, who scored it equal best for sociability, noise level and upkeep, said she would certainly own one but would be careful of its breeding for temperament. She was also concerned about the labrador's general health. "The old-fashioned working lab was a wonderful dog," she said, "but so many of the modern ones suffer from hip dysplasia, arthritis and other diseases often related to over-breeding."

Dr Bruce Fogle scored this breed high in all categories. "They are affable and highly trainable but will search out slime and mud from miles away and wallow in it. The pig of the canine world." Colin Tennant, who chose the labrador as his favourite, described it as "an excellent all-round dog as a family pet".

****BASENJI

Weight range: 21-24lbs; height range: 16-17ins; life expectancy: 12 years

This unusual breed, descendant of an ancient hunting dog, was the favourite of both Patricia Holden White and Bruce Fogle and would have been our winner were it not that it costs so much and is difficult to obtain. "An attractive dog, which does not bark, but can howl and make a high-pitched squeak," said Patricia Holden White. "It's classified as a hound, and is not a dog for everyone. It can be very independent and not always biddable."

Bruce Fogle scored the Basenji best for noise, ease of grooming, general health and upkeep, but agreed with Patricia Holden White that it is not the most sociable of dogs. "Elegant and tidy, it is not a clinging dog and can be difficult to train," he said. Colin Tennant described the Basenji as "bright and full of fun. They don't bark, so they're good if you have carping neighbours."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Information on all breeds of dog is available from the Kennel Club, 1- 5 Clarges Street, London W1Y 8AB (0171 493 6651). The British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers (01322 558599, evenings only) will advise on training classes in your area. For problem pets, contact the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists (01203 452566).

Patricia Holden White's training sessions take place at the Hammersmith Dog Training Club, Askew Road Church Hall, London W12 (0171 610 2674 daytime, 0171 727 9033 evenings). Colin Tennant & Associates, Canine Behaviourists (01442 842 374), run workshops for owners of pets with problems.

NEXT WEEK: RED LIPSTICKS

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