Welcome! Glad you are here.
It is good you are asking questions. I figured I would comment on a few of them.
Concerning your fear of dogs - I too had a fear of unknown dogs and dogs I did not know really well (the only two dogs I was not scared of were my family's two dogs). I was even scared of the neighbor's 1.5 pound chihuahua. So I know what you are talking about - you want to enjoy being around the dogs but you can't. Here's what I did:
- Education. Learn about dogs, learn anything and everything you can.
- Body language. Learning this helped me immensely. Once I could read a dog's intentions I became so much more at ease. Today I am okay with just about any dog - even the growling, snapping ones (although they make me hesitate - I don't fear them). Learn about the warnings dog gives leading up to a bite and what the dog is attempting to communicate. Essentially learn to speak dog. This was what helped me most. Go past the typical things people know (example: a wagging tail means happy is what most people assume). Learn about what is means if the dogs ears are up, down, sideways, if the dog looks at you, away from you or doesn't seem to be looking anywhere near you, learn about how dogs move if they intend on a friendly greeting (and mean you and your dog no harm by approaching even if it seems like a very energetic, tooth filled greeting), etc. Learn to "speak" dog.
- Learn about dog fighting. Not all snaps, growls, etc are bad. It is part of how a dog communicates - given most of the time it is in defense or to stop something they find uncomfortable. I will let my dog snap at another without correction if a dog/puppy repeatedly bullies her and rolls her on her back. She growls and if they don't back off - she snaps however I know her, her amount of control (and that she will warn before a snap) and I have repeatedly warned the other owners that they need to keep their dog off of mine. I will remove the offending dog however me saying no and the owners saying no doesn't speak to the offending dog as well as my dog saying no. I will also allow a growl and dog-dog correction for repeated humping (I also intervene). I do not allow it for guarding, out of the blue or without cause however I do not "muzzle" their ability to "speak" to other dogs. My dogs are not dog aggressive however they have snapped at other dogs but only when being pushed around, bullied or humped. To me that is my dogs saying no (and they do try to get away from the offending dog first on their own) but to someone how is not aware of how dogs communicate (that a dog will "escalate" the communication to another dog who is not listening) they may see the snap as aggressive and miss everything that happened before the snap. To someone who can read dogs - they saw my dog avoid looking at the other dog, allowing her self to be sniffed all over - again avoiding eye contact and turning her body slight away, rolling on her back for the slightest forwardness of another dog (she is a slightly fearful dog) and laying there again avoiding eye contact. If the dog doesn't back off (my dog has communicated very clearly - "I am friendly, I mean you no harm, you can run the show, please leave my alone") and let my dog get back up - then they get a growl and snap. Learn that are very loud dog fight with no blood and no actual biting was actually more of a "screaming match" than an actual fight. Dogs have amazing restraint and although a "Screaming match" will still need to be separated - there is no reason to panic. Separate the dogs, institute the proper training and move on. No reason to rush anyone to the vet for injuries - you may want to rule out medical causes of behavioral issues however you can make a routine appt. for that.
- Learn dog basics. How to separate fighting dogs, medications that are safe for a dog, what to do if a dog is bleeding, how to bath a dog, etc. Anything you don't know - learn about. Go back over everything you do know.
- Go to a dog park and just watch dogs. You don't have to go in. Just watch them and get as close as you are comfortable. Most people (at least around here) are very friendly at the dog park - if the question why you are watching (and some may - someone just watching may send up a red flag as a dog napper, creepy person, etc) just explain you are trying to overcome your fear of dogs. Most people are fine with that and will content to let you hang out around their dogs. If someone has an exceptionally friendly dog, you may wish to ask the owner if you can interact with their dog so you can get work past your fear. Work yourself up to being inside the dog park. Try this after you have learned to "speak" dog fluently so you are not pushed into greater fear by a strange dog approaching you - that way when the boxer spring boards off the ground and slams into you - you know he meant no harm - he just has bad manners. He is just happy to see you - even if the greeting was poorly executed by human standards.
As far as owning a dog in college -
- Be realistic. If you have 15 hours and work full time (as I did) you can still own a dog, however be honest. If you only have 30 minutes in the morning to walk him and 30 minutes in the evening - get a low energy dog that will be content with that. Don't get a dog that says "high energy", "lots of exercise", or even "moderate amount" etc next to it. A red flag should also go up if it says - "not good for apartments" as most people use their yards for exercise and people who write the dog descriptions know this - so if the dog has higher exercise requirements they will write that or "needs a yard." (even though a yard should not stop you from walking the dog).
- Write a budget. A great dane may be your dream dog (as an example) however they can eat, eat, eat. A chi can live off of 5 pounds of food for weeks. If you don't have the money to feed a low energy 40 pound dog - then don't get a 40 pound dog. Dogs get sick, they require medication, they can break bones, etc. Start setting aside money now for an "emergency fund." Assess the cost of supplies (leashes, collars, bowls, crates, back seat covers,etc). Again - honesty is the best policy - don't let yourself fall into a trap of "I can come up with the money" or "it's a good deal."
- Assess puppy or adult dog. Tons of people want puppies for a huge list of reasons however puppies are messy, hard to raise, troublesome and time consuming. If you don't want to be up every 2-3 hours 24 hours a day for the first several months of owning a dog to take it outside (as puppies - especially small ones - can only hold it for that long) than get an adult. Yes, you may still have to house train the dog - but if the dog is crated you can sleep for 6-7 hours without having to take the dog out and the dog won't be miserable or have an accident. You can skip the puppy destruction (almost all breeds come with this but only some retain it into adulthood). I personally like getting adults or older puppies (6 mo+). I don't want a puppy and I doubt I ever will. It is too much work.
- Assess living situations. Large dogs (generally 25+ pounds around here) make it harder to find a place to live. Apartments put caps on weight and occasionally breeds. Consider your area and the typical dog trends. If most apts in the area you will be living for the next 4 years doesn't allow breed X, don't get breed X. If most don't allow anything bigger than 30 pounds, don't get anything bigger than 30 pounds. You don't want to have to get rid of the dog later because of your lack of foresight. If you plan on living in a dorm - don't get a dog. Most don't allow them - in fact I've only seen one that allowed cats and it was still no to dogs.
- Research breeds. Learn everything there is to know about them. Try to meet as many as you can of the breed (again dog parks). Interact with them, ask their owners about them - many people (not all) are more than happy to share about their dog. Explain you are looking at getting this breed and you want to be prepared. Do take what they say into account however know everything you hear is not true. If anyone says their husky doesn't shed that much - they probably don't have an actual husky.
- Don't fall into the gimmick of designer breeds. There is nothing wrong with mutts but a chorkie, labradoodle, maltipoo, etc are not real breeds. They are not recognized and you should not be shelling out a lump of cash for them (in 99% of circumstances). The ethical breeder of a mix breed is a very rare bird. Until you are extremely well educated on locating an excellent breeder - avoid breeders who sell mixes. Also be wary of variations of recognized breeds - examples: a merle husky is not ethically bred dog. Merle does not naturally occur in the breed. The dog has another breed mixed in to give it the merle coat. A chihuahua does not come in "teacup." Chis by breed standard are supposed to be 5 pounds or less so all of them are tiny. You should not be paying extra for a tiny dog that is already supposed to be tiny (plus dogs that tiny are much more likely to be very unhealthy). There are breeds that have varying sizes (ex: poodles - mini, standard and toy) - so as a general rule of thumb - if it isn't on the AKC's or breed club's website as a recognized breed, size, color, etc - huge red flag. Avoid newspapers, people sitting outside wal-mart, etc who are selling puppies as well. They generally did not intend on the breeding and therefore are just trying to get rid of them - the pups will not be breed to be healthy or improve the breed. The people may also be trying to make a quick buck as well and more likely to scam you.
Feel free to ask just about anything. I hope this helps!