Getting your first dog is an exciting time.
You may already have ideas about what kind of dog you want, and that’s great! However, it’s worth keeping in mind that some types of dogs will be much better suited towards first-time owners than others.
There’s so much to think about as you prepare to bring home a family member that could be in your home for 15 years or more.
One of the most common places to start narrowing your search is breed. While breed alone isn’t everything, it’s a good starting point for finding your perfect match.
Why Breed Matters for First-Time Owners
Really, breed matters for all owners. Even if you’re flexible on what you’re looking for in a dog, you probably have a few preferences on size, coat type, energy level, and friendliness.
As a dog behavior consultant, many of my most difficult cases originate from owners getting in over their head with a fashionable breed that’s the wrong fit for their homes. At the shelter, we see thousands of dogs each year that were mismatched with their owners. Many of these poor fits could have been avoided if the humans spent more time researching their chosen breed.
Every dog breed originated with a specific needs and goals in mind. Dogs that are bred for hunting, guarding, pulling sleds, herding, or sitting on laps will all come with vastly different energy levels and temperaments.
Let’s take my dog Barley as an example. He’s a Border Collie – notorious for being wicked smart and go-go-go (he’s a total fetch maniac)!
Charming collies doing handstands and yoga on YouTube really “sell” this breed – but they’re not a great fit for most first-time families.
There are days where Barley comes home from a 19-mile run, takes a 2-hour nap, and then ready for more action as he runs circles around the house squeaking his 93 different toys. In addition to his boundless energy, he can open doors. You can see why letting him get bored could be a recipe for disaster.
If I had small children (like Barley’s previous owner did), I honestly doubt I could handle having Barley in my home. He’s incredibly trainable and will do almost anything I ask – but I have to constantly give him tasks, or he makes up games and jobs for himself.
If I wasn’t a marathon-running dog trainer, Barley would be a very challenging dog!
It’s easy for me to take a few impressive training videos of him and pretend he’s the most perfect dog out there (well, he is to me). The truth is that this breed is a tough one, and they really aren’t for everyone.
The point is, Barley is a very typical Border Collie. Anyone who has done a little research on Border Collies would know how high-octane they can be.
Still, we get hundreds of herding dog mixes into the shelter for behavior problems that are depressingly common with underchallenged and bored dogs. They bark, dig, chase children, and try to herd cars.
Take the time to Google what your chosen breed is bred for and common behavior problems. Research is imperative to success as a first-time owner.
Bonus Tip: Don’t base your decision off of an individual dog! I’ve met enough Akitas to know that they’re generally a very tough breed, but my neighbor’s Akita is easier and friendlier than most labs I’ve met.
Before selecting a dog, take some time to get real about what you’re looking for. K9 of Mine’s Pre-Adoption series will help you create a scorecard and really think through the preparation process.
A Note on Mixed-Breed Dogs for First-Time Owners
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with mixed-breed dogs. In many cases, mixed breeds are a great place to start for first-time owners.
Adopting an older mixed-breed from the shelter can give you the advantage of a pre-trained dog with known behavioral habits, and mixed-breed puppies can be great for first-time owners who want a younger dog.
They often average out any extreme behavioral tendencies of their parents, but not always.
You’re Going in (Slightly) Blind
Overall, mixed breeds are a great option.
However, it’s important to realize that whenever you purchase or adopt a mixed-breed dog, you’re less likely to understand what you’re adopting than with a purebred.
For most owners, this isn’t a huge problem. But if you have big competitive agility or hunting goals, you may at a disadvantage with a mixed breed. Mixed-breed dogs are a great option if you don’t have strict goals or needs for your dog (and despite that, I know several successful service dogs, agility competitors, and child-friendly mixed breeds).
The more breeds mixed into your dog’s makeup, in general the more moderate your dog will be as far as temperament. Having a mix of various breeds often tends to cancel out extreme behaviors from any individual breed.
Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Pomskies, and Huskadors are technically mixed breed dogs. That means they’re inconsistent from individual to individual on physical and personality traits. Genetics don’t work like a recipe and mixed breeds don’t automatically exhibit the best traits of both their parents.
I’ve met plenty of Goldendoodles that have the nervous energy of a skittish Poodle and the shedding and allergenic coat of a typical Golden Retriever. Not exactly the stable-tempered hypoallergenic service dog that many breeders advertise! That’s why the original ‘doodle breeder actually regrets his decision to make the cross.
Mixed breeds are a mixed bag. Especially when parents are unknown, it’s almost impossible to predict what a mixed breed puppy will grow up to be like. Luckily, most mixed breed dogs are lovely dogs that hit the middle of the road on most personality traits – perfect for the first time owner!
The bottom line is that you’re bringing a living animal into your home, and that’s always a gamble.
It’s important to take a hard look at a variety of traits across the breed. Picking the cutest dog from a photo array isn’t the best way to go. That’s why we created this guide!
Best Dog Breeds for First Time Owners
Look for dogs that are generally described as trainable, eager to please, and friendly when selecting your first dog breed. We created a list that varies by energy level, coat type, brains, and brawn.
These dogs are ranked by size, not by preference.
1. Shih Tzus
Shih Tzus are spunky and oh-so-cute. Their coat takes a bit more work than pugs, but they’re surprisingly athletic. They’re fun for homes with kids and laid-back owners.
Energy Level: Medium-high, Shih Tzus are alert and enjoy activity.
Coat Type: Long, they’ll need regular grooming.
Brains: Loveable lunks. According to Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs, Shih Tzus are ranked 127 out of 137 for intelligence and need 80-100 or more repetitions to learn new cues.
Brawn: Pocket-sized, Shih Tzus weigh 9-16 pounds and stand just 8-11 inches tall.
Pugs are consistently friendly, happy-go-lucky dogs with an adorable face. Their biggest downside is their many health problems from that adorable short nose, so be sure that you’ve got the money for potential health problems and the heart for a dog that might not live to 10 years old.
Energy Level: Low-Medium. Pugs are playful and enjoy a good romp, but their short legs and short nose make breathing and running challenging.
Coat Type: Short & easy. No crazy coat maintenance here!
Brains: Loveable lunks. Pugs are ranked 107 out of 137 for intelligence. They generally take 40-80 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Pugs are small but mighty little tanks, weighing about 14-18 pounds and stand just 12-13 inches tall.
3. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel are cheerful little dogs. They have a slightly less shortened noses than pugs, but still may suffer from similar health concerns.
Energy Level: Low-Medium. Always up for a good game or walk, Cavaliers are still great lap dogs.
Coat Type: Long, requires regular brushing.
Brains: Average intelligence. Ranked 72 out of 137. They generally take 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Tiny, 13-18 pounds and only 10-13 inches tall.
Despite being bred for racing, sighthounds are notorious couch potatoes. They’re not very trustworthy off leash, but they’re excellent loving companions for apartment living.
Energy Level: Medium. Whippets will enjoy a good sprint or two, but are not endurance athletes at all.
Coat Type: Very short, whippets often benefit from doggie jackets in colder areas.
Brains: Average intelligence. Whippets rank 95 out of 137. They generally take 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Small but leggy, Whippets weigh 25-40 pounds but stand quite tall at 18-22 inches.
Like the Whippet, Greyhounds are originally racing dogs. They’re bred to run in short spurts after fast-retreating objects, so they’re not great for small animals or off-leash work. However, they’re calm and affectionate companions that are great for many beginner homes.
Energy Level: Medium. Greyhounds love a good sprint, but otherwise are content to hang on the couch.
Coat Type: Very short, Greyhounds may need a coat in colder areas.
Brains: Average intelligence. Greyhounds rank 85 out of 137. They generally take 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Long and leggy, Greyhounds weigh 60-70 pounds and stand 27-30 inches tall.
6. Labrador Retriever
There’s a reason Labs are consistently in the top 3 most popular American dog breeds.
They’re smart, affectionate, and energetic without being overwhelming. Be sure to find a breeder who produces pet labradors, as hunting type labradors will have far more energy than the average household can handle.
Energy Level: Active, Labs need regular walks interspersed with more intense activity like hiking, running, training, or fetch.
Coat Type: Short and thick, labs shed quite a bit
Brains: Smarty Pants. Ranked 7 out of 137. They took fewer than 5 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Large and sturdy, labs weigh between 55 and 80 pounds and stand around 21-25 inches tall.
7. Golden Retriever
Another consistent “top dog,” Golden Retrievers take a bit more grooming than Labs, but also rank a little higher in intelligence.
For many, the difference between these two breeds comes down to looks and personal preference. Goldens are exuberant and friendly, like Labs, and are known for their relaxed and ever-present smile.
This friendliness likely comes from originally being bred for sharing a boat with strangers while guns go off around them – Labs and Doldens are both duck hunting dogs.
Energy Level: Active, Goldens need regular walks interspersed with more intense activity like hiking, running, training, or fetch.
Coat Type: Longish, Goldens require regular brushing that can usually be done at home.
Brains: Smarty Pants. Ranked 4 out of 137, goldens required fewer than 5 repetitions to learn a new command
Brawn: A bit smaller than Labs, Goldens weigh in around 21-24 inches and weigh 55-75 pounds
8. Bernese Mountain Dog
Another giant but easy dog breed, Bernese Mountain Dogs are friendly and relaxed.
Their silhouette is impressive and their bark commanding, but “Berners” are a perfect mix of looks, calm temperament, and willingness to adventure.
Energy Level: Medium-high, Bernese Mountain Dogs enjoy hiking and even pulling carts but don’t need to run miles per day.
Coat Type: Long, Bernese Mountain Dogs need regular brushing but shouldn’t have to be professionally groomed often.
Brains: Quick learners. ranked 27 out of 137, Bernese Mountain Dogs required 5-15 repetitions to learn a new command. This intelligence level is just about right for most owners who like a smart dog, but don’t want to be outsmarted regularly.
Brawn: Weighing in at 80-110 pounds, Bernese Mountain Dogs pack a punch when they try to cuddle on your lap. They stand about 23-26 inches tall.
9. Great Dane
Giant and goofy, Danes are humongous couch potatoes. They’re known for being patient and affable, enjoying a good cuddle. Their drool and size might be daunting, but Danes are excellent companions for first-time owners and apartment dwellers.
Energy Level: Low-medium, Danes need to stretch their legs a few times daily but otherwise are very relaxed in home.
Coat Type: Short and easy, Great Danes don’t require much upkeep.
Brains: Average intelligence. Ranked 90 out of 137, Danes required 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command
Brawn: Gentle giants, Great Danes stand tall at 28-30 inches and weigh between 100-200 pounds.
Worst Dog Breeds for First Time Owners
For first-time owners, it’s smart to avoid any large dog breed that is described as “aloof” or “reserved with strangers” or any other euphemism for unfriendly. The same goes for “primitive,” “independent,” or “strong-willed” dogs.
In general, first-time owners should avoid dogs with unusual names unless they’ve got a good reason for choosing a Canaan dog, Dogue de Bordeaux, Basenji, or Vizsla. If you struggle to pronounce your new dog’s name, you haven’t done enough research!
We want to be clear – these breeds are not bad breeds. Rather, they’re often challenging and need to be in the right home to succeed.
It’s worth noting that there’s always some variety within a breed, and all dogs are individuals. There are certainly some friendly Chows and couch potato Border Collies out there. But in general, these breeds will pose a challenge to a first-time home, and aren’t recommended for greenhorn owners.
1. Shiba Inu
Shiba Inus are potentially the cutest dogs on the internet, but they’re not for beginners. Their independent nature makes people liken them to cats, and they can be very difficult to train. Almost every Shiba Ina I’ve met has been very shy, which is also difficult for some owners.
Energy Level: Active, Shibas need a nice long walk. They should be kept on leash, though, since they’re often very difficult to train to come when called.
Coat Type: Short but very thick, Shibas will need semi-regular grooming.
Brains: Average intelligence. Shibas ranked 92 out of 137 and needed 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Small but full of personality, Shibas stand 13-17 inches tall and weigh 15-24 pounds.
Cute and noisy, Beagles are bred to run ahead of their owners and bark their heads off while chasing down game. This makes them really challenging dogs for most first-time owners.
Their independent work ethic, desire to sniff and chase, and loud bay is too much for the average owner. That said, they can be cheery and friendly in the right home.
Energy Level: Very active, Beagles need plenty of exercise but should stay on leash.
Coat Type: Short and easy to care for.
Brains: Loveable lunks. Ranked 130 out of 137, Beagles needed 80-100 repetitions or more to learn a new command.
Brawn: Tiny for the hound group, Beagles stand 13-15 inches tall and weigh just 20-30 pounds.
3. Border Collie
Far too smart and energetic for their own good, Border Collies are bred for all-day farmwork.
Unless you’re ready to make a big commitment to keeping your pup entertained and exercised, it’s best to skip this breed. When bored and underchallenged, Border Collies tend to bark, dig, and even nip at anything that moves in an attempt to herd it.
I love my Border Collie, but just ask my dogsitters – he’s not for everyone.
If you do go with a Border Collie, be sure to find a breeder that consistently produces puppies that fit your lifestyle and goals. There’s a big difference between a farm, sport, or show line Border Collie.
Energy Level: Extremely high, Border Collies need regular mental and physical challenge every day
Coat Type: Varies. Border Collies come in smooth (aka short coat) and rough (aka long coat).
Brains: Show-off brainiacs. Ranked 1 out of 137, Border Collies needed fewer than 5 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Packing a huge punch into a medium body, Border Collies weigh 27-45 pounds and stand 18-22 inches tall.
4. Siberian Husky
Vocal and independent, Huskies are beautiful runners that aren’t for the faint of heart. They’ll run you to the ground, sing dog songs until the neighbors call the police, and knock the socks off of everyone who looks at them.
They’re popular for a reason, but animal shelters are also full of huskies because they’re really not good for first-time owners.
Energy Level: High, Huskies do best in homes that can provide regular long workouts, like canicross training runs. Remember, they’re bred to literally pull a sled all day!
Coat Type: Thick and long, huskies need regular brushing and occasional grooming trips.
Brains: Average intelligence. Huskies ranked 76 out of 137 and needed 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Medium sized, huskies weigh 35-60 pounds and stand 20-24 inches tall.
Side Note: Just Say No To Wolf Hybrids!
It’s worth noting that we never recommend purchasing, adopting, or rescuing a wolf hybrid dog (although wolf look-alike breeds are fine…although they too tend to be quite a bit of work to care for).
Humans carefully bred dogs for thousands of years to get away from the aloof, suspicious, and downright dangerous wolfy roots. Just because Nymeria didn’t eat Arya does not mean that a pet wolf is a good idea!
Wolf and coyote mixes belong in the wild. Even when raised from a young age, they tend to be highly possessive of toys and food and can be extremely dangerous.
Popularized by the movie 101 Dalmatians, these dogs are notoriously difficult for even experienced owners. They were originally bred to run barking ahead of fire engines, so they need a lot of energy release and can be quite barky.
Energy Level: Very high – remember, these dogs are bred for running alongside fire engines and horses!
Coat Type: Short, requires very little upkeep.
Brains: Ranked 61 out of 137, dalmatians needed 15-25 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Another medium to large sized dog, Dalmatians weigh 45-70 pounds and stand 19-24 inches tall.
Everyone loves a Chow’s purple tongue – but chows are notoriously aloof. They’re quite suspicious of strangers and can be heartbreakingly disinterested in people or training.
Chows are very cute and dignified, but they’re not cuddly or great for first-time owners.
Energy Level: Low, Chows don’t need much beyond regular walks.
Coat Type: Very long and thick, Chows need regular intensive grooming sessions.
Brains: Loveable lunks. Ranked 134 out of 137, chows needed 80-100 repetitions or more to learn a new command.
Brawn: Chows look bigger than they are, but aren’t small dogs. They weigh 45-70 pounds and stand 17-20 inches tall.
7. Belgian Malinois
Super smart and bred for dangerous work, Belgian Malinois are wonderful dogs to watch. They’re beautiful and tenacious, and terrible for most homes.
These dogs are bred to track down bombs and drugs over dangerous terrain or apprehend suspects for police, so they’re pretty hardcore. When not sufficiently exercised and trained, these dogs get very bored and destructive.
Their background as bitework dogs means they’re quite quick to bite – and hold on.
Energy Level: Extremely high, Belgian Malinois need large amounts of mental and physical exercise per day.
Coat Type: Short, easy to groom.
Brains: Smarty pants. Ranked 26 out of 137, Belgian Malinois required 5-15 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Large and lean, Belgian Malinois weigh about 40-80 pounds but stand tall at 22-26 inches.
8. Cane Corso
Large and impressive, Cane Corsi are intimidating dogs.
Cane Corsi are bred to be guard dogs, fostering the tendency to become overly wary and suspicious of strangers and new things. This makes Cane Corsi difficult dogs for many homes.
Their loyalty to their favorite humans often comes at the expense of aggression towards strangers, so Cane Corsi need lots of positive training and socialization.
Energy Level: Medium, Cane Corsi love training and playing tug but aren’t endurance athletes. Give them enough outlets to avoid destructive behavior.
Coat Type: Short and very easy to groom.
Brains: Cane Corsi are not ranked in The Intelligence of Dogs, but are quite smart and enjoy training.
Brawn: Thick and imposing, Cane Corsi often exceed 100 pounds and stand 24-28 inches tall.
Gorgeous dogs popularized by the moving story of Hatchi, Akitas are not for the faint of heart.
Their origin story is in dispute, but Akitas were probably bred for bear hunting, dog fighting, guard dog work, or a combination of the three. All of this means that Akitas have unusually high levels of suspicion with strangers and aggression towards people and dogs.
When well-trained and socialized, Akitas are a beautiful and dignified companion – but they’re not a good dog for a first-time owner.
Energy Level: Medium, Akitas need regular outlets but aren’t full-time athletes
Coat Type: Long and thick, Akita coats need a lot of brushing and occasional professional grooming.
Brains: Average intelligence. Ranked 103 out of 137, Akitas needed 25-40 repetitions to learn a new command.
Brawn: Large and majestic, Akitas weigh in at 70-130 pounds and stand 24-28 inches tall.
Don’t Like Our List? Here’s How to Make Your Personalized Breed List
After you’ve come up with a list of desired traits for your future dog using the scorecard from our adoption guide, you’re ready to start looking at breeds.
Always create your list of desired traits first. That way, you can be clear-eyed and honest about how dogs measure up before you fall in love with idea of a Dogo Argentino.
Take a look at your list and your life. Do you want a dog that’s high energy, a weekend warrior, or a couch potato?
Be realistic about how much time you want to spend exercising and training your dog. Is it important that your dog is ok with other dogs or kids? Do you want to spend a lot of time off leash?
Sometimes, What You Don’t Want is Easier Than What You Want
These questions can help you narrow down your search a bit.
When helping clients select a dog, I find it’s easier to start with what we don’t want. For example, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted when I started looking for a dog in 2016. I did know a few things I didn’t want:
No dog under 35 pounds. I wanted a sturdy adventure dog and wanted a dog that could keep up on extremely rugged Colorado mountains.
No dog over 80 pounds, for the same reason.
No dog that required regular professional grooming. I just can’t afford that.
No dogs that were banned by the City of Denver or my lease.That meant no Akitas, Cane Corsos, Pit Bulls, Dobermans, or Rottweilers.
No major barkers. I just find this irritating beyond belief.
No separation anxiety. I work 10 hour days and can’t afford daycare.
No dogs with major prey drive. My parrot Francis did not appreciate being terrorized.
From there, it was pretty easy to start crossing off breeds based on size, coat type, and breed bans. I narrowed down further by crossing off breeds that are extremely rare or expensive. That left me with a fairly manageable list of breeds.
Next, start doing some research. I like to start with the AKC website for a basic overview of breeds. I used this site to select the friendliest, smartest, and athletic breeds from the remaining breeds.
Skip the AKC “breed selector tool” other than for laughs. It gave me a list of breeds that I’ve never heard of with no clear reasoning. Really, I’m not sure why their calculator thinks a Komondor, Glen of Imaal Terrier, Porcelaine, and Mountain Cur are good fits for me!
Coming to a Conclusion on Your First Dog Breed
After a few hours of research, I had a nice short list that included most herding dogs and a few retriever types. When you’ve narrowed your list down to under ten breeds, you’re ready to start talking to owners and meeting dogs.
Join Facebook groups, call breeders, and hang at dog shows or dog parks to find owners of your breed finalists. Interact with the dogs and talk to the owners about the ups and downs of their pup! This will help give you a better idea of what the day-to-day life of owning that breed is like.
Have you ever owned any of our ranked “best” or “worst” dogs for first-time owners? How did it go? Share your own experiences in the comments!