Heavy Petting

When Adopting a Dog, Size Matters

Big dogs are often overlooked in shelters, but science indicates they might be the smarter choice

Heavy Petting Irwin (ID#A157508) is a handsome 11-month-old guy with unique colored eyes. He currently weighs 49 pounds but may fill out a little as he finishes growing. He’s available for adoption now. (Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society)

Back on my farm in Wisconsin, I had a beautiful Anatolian Shepherd who went by the name Rhett.

Rhett was a working dog. Weighing in at more than 120 pounds, he was a giant bruiser of a beast who could easily be mistaken from a distance for a fluffy pony. His size made him appear very intimidating, but it was all smoke and mirrors.

He was the kindest, most gentle soul you could ever meet. His job was to protect my sheep and goats, and it was a role he took very seriously. He spent most of his time lounging in the pasture, always from a vantage point of being able to see all the animals in his protection. Predators kept a safe distance because his booming bark made it clear he was not to be trifled with.

Having Rhett really opened my eyes to the joys of having a large dog. He had such a different, laid back kind of vibe to him, even when he was being high-energy playful. In some ways, he was a lot easier to handle than my small dogs.

Now, I know this can be a dicey subject, since people who own small dogs (myself included) will sometimes fervently defend why their particular breed is best. But if you look at the science, and yes studies have been done on this, big dogs are statistically better in three key categories, according to research done at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

Of the three categories the study examined, the first was obedience, which looked at how reliably dogs obeyed the commands of “sit,” “down,” “stay” and “come” off leash.

The second category, aggression and excitability, looked at the frequency of behaviors like growling, snapping or barking at other dogs or visitors in the home. They also determined whether dogs would fight with other dogs, or pursue joggers and cyclists, is excitable when the doorbell rings, etc.

The third behavior component that they looked at was called anxiety and fearfulness. This included owner’s ratings of whether their dogs showed behaviors such as, anxiety in unknown situations, fearfulness when exposed to loud noises like traffic or fireworks or of unknown humans, dogs or crowds, etc.

The findings revealed that small dogs (classified as weighing less than 44 pounds) scored lower in all three categories. So sure, small dogs on average are a little less obedient, more aggressive/excitable, and fearful than larger dogs—but they make up for it with their undeniable “cute and cuddly factor.”

Speaking as the guy with two small dogs, this might sound strange coming from me—but if you’re thinking about adopting a pet, you may want to consider looking at the more vertically gifted variety of dogs who often get overlooked in shelters. Large dogs can be seen as intimidating in a shelter setting, so adopters’ eyes seem to travel the fastest to our more petite characters.

In fact, we could really use more volunteer fosters for large dogs, too. We’re about to enter our busiest season, which means we’ll be seeing a lot more animals coming through our doors in need of loving homes. And when possible, we prefer having our adoptable dogs in foster homes while they wait for permanent placement. It’s proven to improve their overall mental health, ease anxiety, and it gives us “real world” knowledge of what that dog is really like in a home environment–which helps us to find great adoption matches faster.

It is always harder for us to find foster placement for larger dogs—and don’t they deserve a cozy dog bed in the corner of someone’s living room just as much as the littles? Yes, methinks. So if you’ve never had a large dog before, fostering is a wonderful option to test the waters and see if a large dog might be a good fit for your home.

If you’re on the fence of whether a small or big dog is the best match for your family, perhaps these findings will help. Or maybe it just confused you more!

So let me end with this: I’ve had small dogs. I’ve had medium sized dogs. I’ve had large dogs. They are all amazing and unique in their own ways. They are all individuals and ornery in fun and entertaining ways. In every case, they chose me–not the other way around. So just keep an open mind, and the dog that is best for you and your family will choose you when the time is right!

Jack Hagerman is CEO of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society.

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