When a friend of mine broke up with her boyfriend a few years back, she called her mother for sympathy.

"Dear," the mother said, "you don't need a boyfriend. What you really need is a dog."

Spring, the old cliche goes, is when thoughts turn to love. And, if you just happen to be on the down side of human love this spring, it's not a bad time to get a pet, either.

"Not only is the selection of animals the largest right now," says Phyllis Wright of The Humane Society of the United States, "but it's the time of year when you want to be outdoors, and things like housebreaking and training will seem easiest."

Of course, getting a pet isn't the kind of decision one makes as a rebound from a broken love affair, or because people are having such fun in the park with their pets. Getting a pet means making a long-term commitment, not only to provide love and companionship, but also those things that you won't get in return -- like food and veterinary care.

Don't underestimate the costs of pet ownership, both in terms of time and money. You may not have to pay for dinner at a fancy French restaurant, but you'll almost certainly find yourself at one end of the leash at midnight in the rain some night, waiting for the other end of the leash to make up its mind.

The first choice to make is the kind. Assuming you have in mind something that doesn't need to live in a cage or aquarium, you should limit yourself, says Wright, to a dog or cat. Exotic pets such as skunks, raccoons, and ocelots are dangerous, expensive, illegal in some places, and generally more trouble than they're worth.

"Basically you should examine your life style and find a pet to match it," says Wright. "Decide whether you are looking for a hiking pal or would be happy with simply a warm body to keep you company."

Your living situation is also important. It's not fair to bring a large dog into a tiny apartment, nor is it a good idea to bring a very young animal into a home with equally young children. In either case, someone is bound to suffer.

The obvious advantage of getting a baby animal can be summed up in four letters: c-u-t-e. But cuteness, Wright cautions, should not be a major factor.Puppies and kittens, barring accidents, altimately turn into dogs and cats. The cuteness usually wears off about the time you begin to tire of walking the animal every night or replacing your umpteenth set of mauled curtains.

Don't reject the idea of getting an older pet too fast. Grown animals tend to be cheaper and easier to get, often are already trained and housebroken, and may may be better right away with young children. Shelters always are filled with "perfectly wonderful pets," says Wright, whose owners have moved or given them up for reasons unrelated to the animal's personality.

Some considerations, according to Wright, on the dog-versus-cat debate: Cats

"Cats can do a lot of things people sometimes reserve for dogs, like coming when they're called, fetching a ball or toy, and being held and petted. Of course, with a cat you're doing all these things on their terms, not yours."

Other advantages of cats: They're cheaper to obtain and care for, require less time and exercise than dogs, and are generally easier to select. "After all," Wright says, "it's pretty hard to find a kitten with a poor disposition."

If you're set on a purebred, Wright suggests going to a local cat show to get an idea of the selection.Remember that some breeds may require more care than others. Persians and Himalayans, for instance, with their long hair, may require several hours of grooming every week.

Most family cats, however, are the everyday garden variety. (Tabby, as Wright points out, is not a breed but a color). Because cats are so much easier to raise and care for than dogs Wright suggests getting two so they can keep each other company.

There are people who don't consider cats pets at all. To them, a pet is someone to take for a romp on a nice day; someone to bring slippers and the newspaper; someone to roughhouse with. In short, to them a pet is a dog. Dogs

Face it, selecting a dog is a lot harder than selecting a cat. You've got more than 100 breeds to choose from, and you're likely to be making a larger investment, especially for a purebred.

If you think you want a purebred, Wright recommends you begin with a good dog book. Don't expect to get off cheaply. Most purebred puppies cost more than $200, and some may cost several time that.

When you're thinking about particular breeds, narrow your choices, based on such factors as size, exercise and grooming requirements, and basic temperament. Wright cautions that even dogs of the same breed may vary widely, and if you're investing in a purebred puppy, it's critical that you meet its parents, or at very least the mother.

Every breed is different, but a good place to start is by analyzing the groups. Hounds (beagles, bassetts, etc.), according to Wright, need less exercise and grooming than most other dogs. Sporting dogs (retrievers, setters, and spaniels), are the best all-around family dogs, but tend to be larger and need a lot of exercise.

Wright recommends against getting what most people think of as guard dogs for families with children. "Dobermans, German Shepherds, and St. Bernards tend not to be good with children. They can be overprotective and often cannot tell play-aggression from real aggression."

If you don't want to put out the initial money or don't care about breed, consider adopting from a shelter. Wright says to be sure to set up some guidelines for what you want BEFORE you get to the shelter. Once there, look for the animal with the outgoing personality, glossy coat, and alert look.

Don't she cautions, be suckered into taking the shy or timid one in the corner because you feel sorry for it. These dogs often turn into fear biters or develop other emotional problems in a family situation.

Whatever you choose, be sure it's what you really want, because you're probably going to have it for some years to come.

And, by the way, my friend never did take her mother's advice to get a dog. She got a husband instead.