One Simple Rule for Choosing an Ideal Pet

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My boyfriend Mike likes to say that a dog chooses its owner. Accordingly, when he went to the shelter four years ago to find a pet, he was “chosen” by a rambunctious two-year-old coonhound who leapt on him at the first possible opportunity. He named the dog J.D., and since then, all of Mike’s visitors have had a similar—and often startling—leap-at-first-sight experience with the 87-pound canine. However, none of them has yet seen this as sufficient reason to take J.D. home with them.

While Mike loves J.D., their time together has been a bit of a challenge. Living alone with a full-time job and a substantial commute, Mike can’t be home often enough to give an energetic hunting dog all the attention and exercise it craves. So, in addition to morning and evening walks, J.D. gets exercise at home by digging in the couch cushions and tearing down the curtains when Mike leaves the house. In light of all this, I have advised Mike to: (1) work on obedience training with J.D. and (2) do the choosing himself next time he decides to adopt a new pet. Additionally, although nothing aids adoption decisions as well as research into the type of pet best suited to one’s lifestyle, I would suggest applying a rule for classifying animals that I learned when adopting my first pet as a little girl.

When I was six years old, my dad took my brother Matthew and me to a pet store to pick out a new puppy. Having done some research on dog breeds, he had decided that a Sheltie would be ideal for our family. The shop had three little Sheltie puppies ready for adoption, waiting behind a glass window, two boys and a girl. The first boy was my brother’s favorite. It ran back and forth, from one side of the cage to the other, sometimes losing its footing and spiraling into a kind of somersault, careless of any walls it might bump into on the way. The second boy was not interested in play or visitors at all. It ignored us for about two minutes as we tapped on the glass and giggled at his brother. Then, unamused with the antics of canine siblings and human children alike, he snuggled himself into a corner and fell asleep, his back turned on us all. Finally, the girl dog—like the last bowl of porridge in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”—was just right. Where one of her brothers was high strung and almost uncontainable in his energy, another was completely uninterested in play or interaction with people. In contrast to both, the girl dog, who we would name Jessie, was playful but calm. She wagged her tail, tumbled and ran with her brother, but also stopped long enough to sniff the glass when we tapped it and occasionally sat down to observe the action. In the twelve years that we owned Jessie, we found this relatively moderate temperament to be perfect, giving us an energetic and affectionate dog who was also highly agreeable, observant, and receptive to human signals and commands.

Armed with this experience, when encountering a litter of puppies, kittens, or other potential companion animals, I generally apply the “Goldilocks” rule, choosing the animal that is neither most nor least energetic. A pet that is obviously high strung will require lots of attention. Like J.D., it will require large amounts of exercise, which can be a difficult commitment for its owner, and it may engage in destructive behaviors when its exercise needs are not met. Also like a J.D., an excessively energetic, hyperstimulated pet may be too easily distracted or willful to take to human commands easily. At the other extreme, an excessively shy or indifferent pet may not be able to provide the outward shows of affection that pet owners often crave. Additionally, like the overly energetic pet, it may not be terribly receptive to human commands. The “just right” pet has enough energy to be playful and social, requires only moderate amounts of exercise, and is calm enough to be receptive to an owner’s commands.

Through the years, I have only had a few opportunities to apply this theory of choosing pets, but diverging from it has seldom ended well. For example, a few years after adopting Jessie, my brother and I were presented with a choice between two kittens in a large cardboard box. One mewed softly and played with toys dangled in front of her, while the other acted as an escape artist, constantly making high leaps out of the box. We were charmed by the second cat, but later found that he rather predictably enjoyed stunts like pulling the tablecloth from a fully set table or darting out the front door as soon as it was opened. One day, our hyperactive cat simply never returned. We feared it might have had a run-in with a raccoon—or a car. Perhaps, had we paid attention to the same criteria used in selecting our dog, we might have enjoyed the company of a moderately playful, manageably mischievous cat until the peaceful end of its natural life.

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