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The 8 Best Family Dog Breeds You’ve Never Heard Of

We went to the American Kennel Club's Meet the Breeds event looking for the next great (non-retriever) family dog. We found a lot of very good doggos.

Americans love Labrador Retrievers. For 28 straight years, the Lab has been the most popular dog breed in the United States — and for good reason. They’re family dogs, patient pets as easy to train as they are to love. But the greatness of a breed — a few breeds actually, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are pretty damn popular too — doesn’t diminish the promise of other breeds. And that fundamental canine truth is self-evident by the lint brush-wielding presenters at the American Kennel Club’s annual Meet The Breeds event. Held at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan, home of the New York Auto Show and glass-ceilinged site of Hillary Clinton’s abortive victory party, the showcase is a branding event for 140 dog breeds. Breed reps, a group of dog-loving front row sitters, come to sell visitors on their beloved genetic riffs on canis lupus familiaris and direct them toward responsible breeders. 

The Meet the Breeds event — which attracted some 25,000 attendees this year — attracts Girl Scout troops looking to earn patches, families looking to expose their toddlers to dogs, and families looking for a standout pet. Yes, many gravitate toward the retrievers, but there are other surprise favorites, breeds that stand out because they offer the ideal combination of traits for families. Breeds that love and snuggle and protect and heal if you ask nicely. To that end, Fatherly went looking for the best family underdogs at the event and encountered some exciting new breeds along the way.

The Neapolitan Mastiff
The Neapolitan Mastiff is a gentle giant. Bollo (pictured above) is a 187-pound 3-year-old who walks a mile a day with his owner Leonard. “I always had a Mastiff when I was younger,” says Leonard, who has four daughters. He appreciates that Bollo, nominally a capable guard dog, is docile and loyal. The fact that he is also enormous and intimidating to those who don’t know him is only for the better. A proselytizing owner, Leonard is a Meet the Breeds veteran. And Bollo didn’t seem to object to the attention he received from attendees.

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The Otterhound
The Otterhound — a dog that very closely resembles titular Tramp in Disney’s live-action remake of Lady And The Tramp — is rarer than the Giant Panda. There are only 600 Otterhounds currently alive around the world. These dogs are good looking in a shirtless McConnaughey sort of way and extremely gentle, ideal for families with young children. Interestingly, they are also very independent and rarely suffer separation anxiety. They are, in short, very chill and very big, weighing in at more than 100 pounds. This does mean that some supervision is necessary around, say, toddlers, but the calm temperament mitigates most concerns. This breed is well-positioned to become a scruffy suburban mainstay if they can just get to reproducing a bit more rapidly.

The Pug
Pugs have surged in popularity over the last decade, largely in urban areas, but still aren’t necessarily considered family dogs. Ashley Fisher, who owns Alfie (pictured above), thinks this does the breed wrong. “They’re great with kids. They’re small, but sturdy,” she says, adding that healthy pugs are high energy but easily trainable. The knock on the breed is, of course, that many pugs aren’t healthy. The breed’s popularity has, in some cases, led to some genetic quality assurance issues. Fisher stresses that it’s important to buy from reputable breeders to limit the likelihood of respiratory issues. She adds that the breed is great for first-time owners. “If you screw up a pug, you shouldn’t have a dog at all,” she says.

The Rottweiler
Rottweilers get a bad rap. Maverick (pictured) is not exactly a terror. He’s a 115-pound, show-winning 5-year-old who rocks the Working Group and has competed at Westminster. “They’re a great family dog,” his owner Donna Worthington says of Rottweilers. “But they are a working breed.” In other words, these dogs need a job or they’ll find a hobby (probably one you won’t wish to encourage). Still, most Rottweilers are gentle giants eager to snuggle and less than enthusiastic about personal boundaries. It’s Worthington’s personal mission to ensure the breed isn’t typecast and Maverick’s pleasure to stand in for all the good boys. Come on. Look at that face.

American Eskimo
American Eskimos are too fluffy and often too smart for their own good. The breed is ideal for any family — preferably with one with a bit of land — that wants to cast a skateboarding dog in some viral videos. Nuka (pictured), a 12-year-old American Eskimo who works with a team of dogs who perform trick shows, performed for her new friends at the Javits Center by jumping through a pair of children’s arms and rolling near a sign that said, well, “Roll Over.” Despite being energetic and trainable in the mold of herding dogs, American Eskimo are known for being kid friendly and calm. Training a kid will be harder.

The Bull Terrier
Bull Terriers— publicly represented by Bullseye the corporate mascot for Target — are extremely common and known for being highly intelligent and easily trainable. They have a lot of energy and need plenty of exercise, which can make them ideal for families who love to hike, go on long walks, or go to the park to play fetch, but they’re also sweet, loving, and easy to groom. As part of the Bull Terrier family, alongside the Staffordshire and American Bull Terrier, there are often concerns among parents about their bite. This is not wholly unreasonable. The breed and (breed variants) are responsible for a disproportionate number of dog attacks and their broad bite can cause plenty of damage. That said, those statistics — a literature review conducted in 2014 found pit bulls, who make up 6 percent of the dog population, responsible for 68% of dog attacks — are likely skewed by the mistreatment of these animals, overbreeding, and the fact that victims are more likely to report dog bites of greater damage than a small one from a small dog. With proper obedience training, Bull Terriers are sweet and solicitous — they’re known for being awful guard dogs because they are so friendly to strangers. Still, it makes sense for parents to monitor dogs spending time around kids — a statement true of any breed.

The Dalmatian
Dalmatians have a reputation for being bad with children and for having tons of health complications. That reputation is at least in part a legacy of a period of overbreeding after the release of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians made these dogs a must-have. Beth Johnson of Dalmatian Kennel Club fights to ensure proper breeding of the Dalmatian and claims the breed is actually great for families — if purchased from the right people. “I’m here just to make sure that, if people are going to buy Dalmatians, they go to a good breeder or a breed specific rescue,” she says. She adds that Dalmatians need to be socialized and do best in active households. A tired dog is alway a happy dog.

The Flat Coated Retriever
Gemma (pictured above) was representing one of the rarer breeds at Meet The Breeds, where her family first heard about the breed. As a family pet, the Flat Coated Retriever is known — to the degree to which it is known — for being exceptionally mellow, but also very willing to play. Naturally, this easy disposition makes these dogs great for families who want a couch potato during the week and a warrior on the weekends.

Photography by Anne Meadows for Fatherly.