Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.
How to Choose a Dog Breed for Your Family
Not all dogs are right for all families, so if you are considering a small dog breed, be sure to look through these descriptions and make sure you find a dog breed suited to the age of your kids, the dog's special health needs, and the conditions around your house.
You can choose your new dog based on what is important to you. Are you looking for a dog that does not shed much? How about one that does not bark a lot? All dogs need to go out and walk, but some a lot less than others.
Finally, you have to choose the dog that looks right to you. The seven dogs I have chosen for this list all look great, but all of them are very different. I love the way a French Bulldog looks, but if the health concerns are more of an issue with you, consider a healthier dog like a Miniature Schnauzer.
The Best Small Dogs for Families
- Bichon Frisé
- Miniature Schnauzer
- French Bulldog
- Shih Tzu
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
1. Bichon Frisé
- Shedding: Very little, and almost hypoallergenic if bathed and brushed frequently.
- Barking: Normal; some dogs bark a lot.
- Health: Some serious health issues.
- Frailty: Not too bad. There are sturdier breeds available, but Bichons are large enough to avoid many problems.
This wooly little guy is one of the best for any family looking for an easy-to-care-for and good-natured small dog. They only weigh about 10 to 20 pounds, so are unlikely to be banned by any lease that allows dogs.
They are cheerful and cute. Bichons are one of the “hypoallergenic” dog breeds since they do not shed much and, if they are groomed and bathed properly, do not shed much dander into their environment. (They do need to be clipped every month or two, brushed daily to keep from matting, and bathed every so often to stay clean—no one said hypoallergenic is easy.)
Most of them like water—just in case you have a pool. If you don't, they are also nice to hang around in the back yard with and are obedient dogs if trained.
Bichons have a good lifespan, usually about 12 to 15 years. Some of them have skin problems, recurrent ear infections, and allergies, but the more seriously affected dogs have knee problems, diabetes, and heart problems. This breed can also be affected by severe liver shunts and autoimmune disease.
2. Miniature Schnauzer
- Shedding: Very little, especially when groomed consistently.
- Barking: Many Schhauzers bark a lot, so training is essential if you do not want to hear this all day long.
- Health: Some serious health issues, but not as bad as some small dog breeds.
- Frailty: Sturdy small dogs; if you have playful children this is one dog that can handle their wrestling.
This small German dog breed is popular with families all over the world, and for a lot of reasons. They are small (about 10 to 20 pounds) but not frail at all. In fact, they are bred down from larger farm dogs (the Standard Schnauzer) and can handle wrestling and playing with kids of all ages.
They are good watchdogs, although some of them have a tendency to bark excessively. They do not shed much but will require grooming every few months, and the long hair on the legs tends to pick up a lot of burrs when out running in the fields.
That makes them suitable for the city.
These guys do have some health problems but not as much as some small breeds. One problem is a tendency for some dogs to develop a kind of pimple on the back. They can usually be treated. Many of them have ear problems after swimming, but that can be avoided by cleaning and drying the ear canals. Some other dogs are sensitive to fats and need to avoid a fatty diet to prevent pancreatitis and a host of other problems.
Most of these dogs are intelligent and easy to train. My favorite part of the Schnauzer personality is their willingness to just have fun.
- Shedding: Very little.
- Barking: Normal; some dogs are shy and will not even bark at strangers.
- Health: Not many health issues for a small dog.
- Frailty: Not tiny but not as robust as some larger breeds.
This dog is small, about 10 to 15 pounds, and although sturdy is a little more delicate than the Bichon or Miniature Schnauzer so may not be right for all families. They are soft, silky little companion dogs, and are pretty sociable, so they do not do well when left alone all day.
Havanese need to be groomed, but if they are shaved into a puppy cut are pretty easy to take care of.
For a small dog, they are generally healthy. Some of them do have trick knees (luxating patellas), heart, eye, or liver problems. Although there are no guarantees, the best way to avoid these problems when searching for a puppy is to find out the problems that the parents suffer from. They live to about 15 years.
4. French Bulldog
- Shedding: Normal for a dog with short hair, so if you bring one of these dogs home he should be brushed every day.
- Exercise Needs: Very little. If you have a very active family that wants a dog to get out and play with them this is not a great choice.
- Barking: Very little. This is one of the benefits of this dog.
- Health: Very serious is you live in a hot environment; some airlines will not ship these dogs because of their likelihood to have heat stroke and die.
- Frailty: Square and tough.
The Frenchie is one of my favorite small dog breeds; one of the reasons I like them so much is that they are so good for everyone, including families with small children.
The Frenchie is also one of the few breeds that can do okay if left alone during the day. I do not think it is a good idea to leave your dog alone all the time since dogs are social and like interaction but, since many of us have to work, this breed will probably just sleep and wait for you to come home. They do like to be around their family though so will be happy when you are home to spend time with them. Another reason for their popularity is that they do not need much exercise.
These dogs used to be a lot more popular and would be even more popular now except for their health problems. They have a flat face so are likely to have breathing problems and are prone to heat stroke, have back problems, and some lines have trick knees (luxating patellas).
If healthy, they live about 10–12 years.
5. Shih Tzu
- Shedding: Almost none.
- Barking: Normal; some dogs bark a lot.
- Health: Numerous problems in some dogs.
- Frailty: Not tiny but not as robust as some larger breeds.
These little Chinese Lion Dogs are probably originally from Tibet. They only weigh about 10 pounds, do not shed much, and are not that hard to take care of if given a puppy cut.
Since they do not shed much and have little dander they are close to being hypoallergenic, great if one of your family members is sensitive to dogs. Before deciding on your new puppy, make sure you bring him home and let the allergic person meet him—a responsible breeder will take him back if there is a problem.
The reason that Shih Tzus barely make the list is their numerous health problems. Some of them are healthy, but if you want to find a healthy dog make sure the parents have been genetically screened for hip problems, eye diseases, and ask about any history of epilepsy. When you bring your new puppy home, be sure to take him to your regular vet for a thorough physical to make sure he will not have severe breathing problems and for a full blood screen to check liver and kidney function.
Even if you do all of that, some problems like hypothyroidism and IVDD (a back disease) will not show up until later. If your dog is healthy he can live up to about 14 years.
6. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Shedding: Dogs need to be brushed every day or two since they do shed.
- Barking: Normal; some dogs bark a lot
- Health: Serious genetically inherited health problems.
- Frailty: Not tiny but not as robust as some larger breeds.
The Cav is an affectionate small dog that is known for his ability to cuddle. They are playful, good with other dogs, and usually good with other pets in the household. They are small but not too tiny, about 5–8 kilos (14–18 pounds) and would be a lot more popular except for their numerous health problems.
Only six of these dogs survived World War Two, and since the survivors were so inbred most of them now available carry several genetic diseases. The most common is heart disease, but they also have trick knees (luxating patellas), hip dysplasia, a disease that causes paralysis of the spine, another disease similar to epilepsy called Episodic Falling, ear problems and deafness, many types of eye problems, and about half of them have a severe blood disease.
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Because of all of those problems, most of them do not even live 10 years.
- Shedding: Do not shed much so if bathed regularly is almost hypoallergenic.
- Barking: Normal; maybe a little less barking than the Bichon Frisé.
- Health: Very few known health problems. Excellent health for a small dog.
- Frailty: A little smaller than the Bichon but still large enough to be around kids.
I wish these dogs could be placed a little higher on this list. Unfortunately, these little Italian pets are still rare in many parts of the world so will not be available no matter how hard you look. If you do find puppies for sale, however, they are great small dogs for a family.
Related to the Bichon, the Bolognese is wooly so looks about the same but is a little smaller (up to about 15 pounds) and probably a lot healthier. And, like the Bichon, they do not shed much so they are close to hypoallergenic. The coat does need to be kept groomed so that it does not mat.
Most of these little dogs are as friendly as a Bichon but perhaps a little quieter. They are as least as easy to train, not known to bark as much as a Miniature Schnauzer or Maltese, and do not need much exercise beyond the daily walk.
If you live in an apartment or small house and know someone who breeds these dogs, find out more about them.
A Few Dogs I Would Not Recommend
- Maltese: Although I think these tiny dogs are great, their size is one of their few drawbacks. They are very small, and thus delicate, and for a family with very small kids they can be a tragic choice. I enjoy the personality of these dogs and waited until my youngest son was old enough to be around the breed; nevertheless, our new dog was injured the first day. If you want a Maltese because they are so good for a first-time owner, get a Bichon.
- Chihuahua: Still one of the most popular dogs because of their size, any potential owner needs to remember how fragile these tiny dogs are. Although they can be easy to care for and long-lived dogs, if you have small kids, find another breed.
- Miniature Greyhound: These dogs are small and affectionate and can be great family pets but many of them have housetraining issues and they are kind of fragile. If you really like the looks and personality of this dog, do not plan on adding one to your family until the children are older.
- Miniature Pinscher: These dogs are fragile and when handled roughly may become angry and prone to bite. Although some people will tell you that Pinscher signifies a type of terrier, the common translation for the word is "biter." These dogs are not biters when kept by adults, but do not do well when mistreated by some kids.
Finding That Perfect Small Dog Breed for Your Family
After you have picked the best dog for your family, do a lot more reading and make sure he is right for you. All of the descriptions you will find are just generalities, however, and your dog's personality may vary from what you expected. Some of this will depend on his breeding, some of it on his environment. Be sure to start training as soon as you bring your puppy home to avoid bad habits developing early.
To find that new puppy, you can visit the animal shelters in your area, contact the breed rescue organizations you will find listed on the internet, or go to dog shows and meet several breeders. (When looking for a rescue that works with small dogs make sure they are a real group and not just a market for a puppy mill. They should not be selling you a puppy, and the donation you make to their group should be voluntary.)
Do not go to a pet shop for your puppy! Dogs bought through a pet shop are produced in a puppy mill, and since the puppy was raised in a cage he will be difficult to housetrain and may have serious behavioral issues.
If a small puppy from a breeder is out of your price range, be sure to go back and consider the puppies and older dogs at your local animal shelter. Small dogs are not always available, but you may find just what your family is looking for.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: What do you think of a Toy Manchester as a family dog?
Answer: They are similar to the Miniature Pinscher. If your children are older, they may be okay with a family. If the kids are small, and likely to fall on the dog or handle him roughly (from the dog's point of view), I would recommend you get one of the breeds on the list that is better for younger kids.
Question: What is a good small apartment dog for a single woman?
Answer: A small dog is not the best option for a single woman living alone. If you are not willing or able to get a large dog, then at least look at some of the medium sized breeds. Here is an article with a list that will help you decide: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/medium-sized-dogs-for-...
Question: What do you think of a miniature foxie for a family pet?
Answer: If you are talking about a fox, I think this is a very bad idea. They are nervous, and when a fox does decide to bite there are going to be serious problems. No rabies vaccine is approved for foxes, so you are putting your children's health at risk.
© 2016 Dr Mark
bhaskar on July 22, 2020:
I wonder how did you miss my Lhasa?
Carol on July 19, 2020:
Thank you for your articles on small dogs. I have raised 3 toy poodles over the years from private breeders and one crippled cat from a rescue shelter. I am now elderly and wanting another small dog. From reading your article, I think I will try to locate a Bolognese.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 01, 2020:
Lorraine Hillstead on March 31, 2020:
looking for small dog to my lap dog that does not bark a lot
GalaxyRat on April 02, 2017:
Good information! My mum and dad wouldn't let me have a Chihuahua, so good to know it isn't that good for families. My siblings and I aren't small kids, so I suppose we could handle a Maltese, but we DO have a larger Rat-terrier, Jack-Russel (maybe even Beagle) mix, and she's a little rough. Then again, she's getting older, and not feeling up to playing so much anymore.
I might even consider a Spaniel (since he's good with other pets) or a Bulldog. Bulldogs need more attention, and like Pitbulls, most people don't like 'em all so much because of the "fierce reputation". They only have a fierce reputation if they have been abused or they have been taught to have one.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 15, 2016:
I think those people that say they have a hypoallergenic dog are wrong. The closest you can get, and the reason I mention "almost hypoallegenic", is a dog like the Bichon with a puppy cut. The dog does not have much dander covered hair to leave around the house, and if the dog is bathed frequently, like a little white dog, they also do not drop much dander into the environment.
Dogs that slobber a lot are just as bad or people with allergies as those dogs that shed a lot of dander around.
My Maltese was about as hypoallergenic as you can get. The bather would groom him every week and more often if he got dirty. When he went to live on the farm with my dad, all of that changed for him.
A lot of people would agree with you on the Schnauzers.
Has it quieted down there in the PRM?
Bob Bamberg on November 15, 2016:
Good hub, Doc. I particularly like your articles like this one that feature resume's of the various breeds. I've never been able to warm up to the schnauzers. A couple who were on my bowling team and also my customers when I owned the store had a miniature schnauzer named Fritz...mean little cuss. But, they were weak on discipline.
Could you clarify "almost hypoallergenic." It is my understanding that allergic people are reacting to a protein found in the dog's saliva, tears and urine. While the allergen is found on shed hair, it's also found on dander and, of course, when people pet, groom and play with their dogs, they're exposed to the protein. I subscribe to a publication from Tufts vet school and carry around an article they did on the subject. It has a sidebar that says there's no such thing as a non-shedding or hypoallergenic dog. They point out that some dogs shed less than others but that all dogs shed as a part of normal hair growth cycle. I encounter a lot of people who insist they have a hypoallergenic dog, so the concept is out there. I'm wondering what your take is on the subject.
Sakina Nasir from Kuwait on November 14, 2016:
Great hub DrMark! It is very helpful for those who want to buy new dogs and also for the ones who have them already. Very well written and researched thoroughly. Keep up the good work! ☺