dad kids dogThe decision to get a dog should not made lightly, especially where there are children in the house.

A dog brings many benefits and as many responsibilities. The benefits include teaching empathy to children. A person who lacks empathy does not fully experience the richness of life. There are books, websites and movies about the joys of dog ownership.

The first responsibility of dog ownership is selecting a dog that is right for your environment and lifestyle. If you are living in an apartment, do not get a working dog. If you have barely the time to breathe, do not get a people dog -- even the fluffiest Shitzu or tiniest Yorkie can give you grief if it is ignored.

Your choice of breed is very important. You should choose among the ones that produce small and gentle mature dogs. Use your head: a breed produced to kill small animals and known for its unpredictable maulings of children is inappropriate. A breed whose members took a child from his bed in November 2006 and killed him in his father's kitchen is inappropriate (see the , "Baby Mauled by Dad's 4 Pit Bulls Is 'Just An Unfortunate Incident'?, 11/6/06).

Consult with a professional (e.g., veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to determine suitable breeds of dogs for consideration.

Be aware that there is controversy over the safety and appropriateness of pit bulls around children. You will not find unbiased information about any breed if you confine your study to conversations with nonprofessionals, websites of breed fanciers, breed specific publications, or rescue / adoption groups. In the experience of Attorney Kenneth Phillips, the most dangerous breeds, and therefore the most unsuitable, are pit bulls, Rottweilers, Akitas and Chows.

It is apparent that the "pit bull gene" is slowly spreading into the traditionally gentler breeds and producing vicious Labradors, Golden Retrievers and other anomalous progeny. You cannot look at a puppy and know its pedigree.

The source of the dog therefore is also very important. A responsible, professional breeder can be counted upon to show you puppies that are normal and healthy. A pet store is more convenient but you must immediately take the dog to a veterinarian for a thorough check-up.

Other sources include a nonprofessional breeder, an animal shelter, and a rescue / adoption group. However, a dog from any of these comes with a degree of risk. There are three factors that produce the risk. One is the dog lobby's refusal to acknowledge the dangers of the pit bull, and its organized opposition to the enactment of reasonable restrictions on the proliferation of this unpredictably vicious dog.

Another is the lack of standardized evaluation protocols, which would have to include the taking of a thorough history of the dog's behavior and lineage, a thorough veterinary review, and the administration of a reliable temperament test.

The third is the absence of a uniform code of ethics which would include a prohibition against releasing into the community any dangerous dog or any dog that could not "pass" the comprehensive evaluation previously described.

If you do not seek a responsible, professional breeder or a good pet store, it will be difficult for you to determine whether the party with whom you are dealing has appreciation for the dangers associated with certain breeds, has made a responsible decision that the dog being shown is indeed adoptable, or can be trusted to strictly avoid placing a vicious dog in your home.

Incredible as it may seem, at this time there are some official, governmental animal shelters which release dangerous dogs to rescue groups that are known to place these same dogs in the homes of seniors and families with small children -- all of which is done under the misguided belief that viciousness, which in fact was bred into certain breeds, will always evaporate in a loving home. These shelters and rescue groups actually believe that they know dogs better than anyone else, and that their practices are ethical. In fact, they are misguided.

None of this is meant to discredit animal shelters and rescue / adoption groups in general. A parent simply has a tougher time and more risk getting a dog from them as opposed to a reputable breeder or store. This will remain true until there are standardized evaluation protocols and a strictly enforced code of ethics along the lines mentioned above.

For more information, visit the American Kennel Club's very informative web pages for Future Dog Owners. The AKC provides a wealth of information and advice about selecting a dog, choosing a breeder, caring for your dog, and much more. Also see Teach Your Kids How To Avoid Dog Bites.