Who Are the Real Top Dogs?

The way most of us choose a dog is a hopelessly haphazard business, like falling in love. We find ourselves at a local dog-rescue centre and fate leads us to a cage where, in a corner, lies a lonely fur ball with gooey take-me-away-from-here eyes. Or we get a call from friends who let slip that their adored bitch has had a litter, and, out of eight puppies, there is just one little fellow left looking for a new home. Cupid’s arrow rarely misses.

Most dog stories have happy endings. However, the list of sensible people who have had to give away their pet because it strays, or proves too muchof a handful, or resists all known training techniques, is long and undistinguished. So to help those who are looking for a new companion and wish to avoid the worst social and domestic pitfalls of dog ownership, we have consulted experts to produce a list of outstanding breeds.

Most intelligent

Winners – Border Collies, Afghan hounds, Labradors and Staffordshire Bull Terriers

By common consent, the brainiest breeds are border collies, labradors, afghan hounds and Staffordshire bull terriers. Ten-year-old labrador Endal made the news recently after learning how to insert a credit card into a chip-and-pin machine, saving his wheelchair-bound master the effort.

Be warned, however: an extremely intelligent dog is not necessarily the easiest companion. This sage advice comes from Anne Bussey, a clinical animal behaviourist with more than 30 years’ experience of dog training. She set up her own training operation called the Canine Intelligence Agency (CIA). ‘Border collies are brilliant for competition because they are good at repetitive tasks and taking instructions, but they can be a nightmare in the home,’ she cautions. ‘If you want a dog that learns quickly where a reward is involved, try the Staffordshire bull terrier. If you want one that has the flexibility to take commands from other family members besides yourself, you should be looking more at gun dogs.’

Some dogs have a sixth sense and are able to predict their owner’s return. But Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, concludes: ‘I don’t think that these telepathic skills are particularly associated with intelligence. As with humans, the most intelligent types are usually the least telepathic’. So how significant is the breed?

I have documented 800 cases and have random household surveys of hundreds more, but there just doesn’t seem to be any link with the breed. It is surprising. I have mainly been studying telepathic skills, and they depend principally on the bond with the owner.’ If a dog that can use your credit card or read your mind strikes you as a touch unnerving, you might prefer a breed that will find fetching your slippers a tough mental workout. Try a basset hound, then.

Most Loveable

Winner – Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

As with Liquorice Allsorts, every kind of dog is somebody’s favourite. What else could explain the zany mixture of breeds that can be seen with their doting owners on any high street or village green?

‘If you want a loveable dog that is suitable for family life, biddable, friendly and doesn’t have huge guarding instincts, then it has to be the Cavalier King Charles spaniel,’ counsels CIA veteran Mrs Bussey. One easily overlooked character-istic is longevity. Small dogs, such as the Cavalier King Charles, should endure for nine years or more, and a miniature wire-haired dachshund will live for 15. A huge Irish wolfhound, however, will be on its last legs in nine years or less.

Most Deserving British Breed

Winner – Otter Hound

As soon as the pet-passports scheme was introduced in 2000, continental breeds began to appear at Crufts and the demand for exotic foreign dogs rocketed, leaving ‘old-fashioned’ British breeds panting to catch up.

Of the many British breeds now recognised as vulnerable, it is the largest, hungriest, bounciest ones that need most support as they are the hardest to look after. So the otter hound is really out in the cold, with fewer than 300 puppies registered each year (compared to more than 45,000 labradors). According to Dr Bruce Fogle, who runs a veterinary practice in London’s Notting Hill, ‘the breed can be stubbornly independent, especially when it sees or smells water’. Heaven help you if it spots an otter.

Best for Children

Winners – Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Labradors and Retrievers

Being forced to wear fancy dress, then dragged backwards by the tail and fed enough chocolate drops in a single hour to make a carthorse sick these are but a few of the indignities that any pet growing up beside a child must regularly endure. It takes a special animal to survive.

Ali Taylor, senior animal-welfare specialist and trainer at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, lists Staffordshire bull terriers, labradors again and retrievers as top contenders, and warns against excitable breeds for those with unruly offspring. ‘If you haven’t got control of your children, how do you expect to keep a breed like a border collie under control?’ she asks. Just as important as choosing the right breed is ensuring the puppy was raised with children and has been socialised from the earliest age.

Wire-haired dachshunds, particularly bitches, make faithful, good-tempered companions for children. And, as the writer Robert Benchley put it: ‘They are already stretched and pulled to such an extent that the child can’t do much harm one way or another’.

Most Fashionable

Winner – Labrador

Dr Fogle, who has seen every canine fad wax and wane over the years, has no hesitation in naming today’s most fashionable dog. ‘The labrador remains overwhelmingly the most popular breed. Each year its numbers grow.’ Indeed, the labrador has headed the Kennel Club’s top 20 for more than a decade.

But the favourite is by no means the most chic. For that title, the distinguished vet puts forward a breed he is seeing in increasing numbers at his practice?the lusciously named lagotto romagnolo. Originally a hunting dog, it looks like a poodle, but is far more tough-minded and sturdy.

The big event in the canine social calendar is no longer Crufts, of course, but the Macmillan Dog Day at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, where top dogs such as Pepsi Rothermere and Tosca Cornwall go to rub shoulders and catch up with all the latest scents. At last summer’s event, pugs, spaniels and Jack Russells were the most talked about ‘it’ breeds, reports committee member Lady Tollemache.

Meanwhile, in truly rural areas, the hunting ban has made puppy-walking more fashionable than ever. To be seen with a pedigree foxhound at the end of your lead is currently très chic.

Least Socially Acceptable

Winner – Bichon Frise

A quick glance at a dog encyclopedia shows the world is awash with dog breeds, many of them bizarre and some quite ghastly. (What excuse can be found for the grotesque hairless Peruvian Inca orchid?) Yet there is one dog, described oh-so temptingly in its breed standard as ‘a gay, happy, lively little dog’, that was surely created as a trap for the socially unwary: the bichon frise.

Its teeth gratingly pretentious name alone should sound warning sirens. With its powder-puff ears, feeble goatee beard and white toenails, it makes the most coiffured Parisian poodle look rugged. Incredibly, the bichon frise regularly stars among the Kennel Club’s annual top 20 most-registered breeds to the detriment of such magnificent traditional specimens as the Sealyham terrier, the Old English sheepdog and the Gordon setter, all of which continue to feature on the vulnerable list. Britain is going to the dogs, and fast.

Most Practical

Winner – Pugs

Greyhounds are often recommended for their hassle-free qualities, as they only need to walk a mile a day, demand little grooming, and sleep the rest of the time. For Dr Fogle, however, there is nothing better than the labrador: ‘They are as happy lounging on a sofa as they are out working; perfect town-and-country dogs.’

But perhaps the biggest practicality challenge a dog owner faces is what to do with the family pet when going on holiday. A labrador is just too big to stay at a good hotel, according to the rule of thumb, applied by hotels such as the Four Seasons Group, that the dog must be under 15lb or roughly the size of a terrier. ‘We do have to play it a little by ear,’ admits a spokesman. Every hotelier’s favourite canine client is undoubtedly the diminutive pug, which is always happiest snoozing softly in the lap of a lady who lunches.