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A few days ago, I got to do one of the most fun things I’ve ever done – I got to go dog shopping! Not for me, of course. Janice and Leroy are all I need. But I had a friend who was considering adopting a dog from a shelter, and she called me to ask me how she knew which dog was really “right” for her. It can be hard to know at a shelter what you can expect. There’s no way to know what health issues the parents may have passed down, and dogs are usually pretty stressed out at shelters. It’s hard to tell what their real behavior is actually like. I tried to explain a few of the tips I’ve gathered over the years for choosing a shelter dog, but at the end of the day, we just decided that I’d go with her.
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Kennel workers do want to find the best homes for the animals in their shelters – but in some cases, they know that certain key phrases will scare away owners forever. That’s why they have a sort of secret language that softens some red flag behaviors. If they tell you a dog is best as a one-person dog, it could mean that the dog has shown aggression towards children. If they tell you that a dog has puppy-like energy, it could mean that the dog is a hyperactive pain in the butt! So, pay close attention to what they are really telling you. Look for the fact buried under the phrase – high energy means high energy, period, no matter how cute it sounds when phrased as “puppy-like energy”.
Before you go to the shelter, make sure you ask anyone who will be living with the dog what they want. Take notes if you need to. The worst thing can be to come home with a dog that you love, but your spouse or roommate hates. This will create a sad and frustrating home environment for the dog, and that can lead to behavioral issues that can make your relationship with the dog harder. Make sure to ask if everyone is comfortable with a big or small dog, if they mind shedding a great deal, if a dog that has a lot of energy will scare them or make them uncomfortable, and so on. Be sure to ask if they mind a mutt, or if they are dead set on a purebred.
While you do want to walk the dog on a leash yourself, it’s important to see how the dog walks with someone they know. Do they walk confidently out of their kennel on the leash, or do they have to be pulled or coaxed out? Do they pull while outside, or are they pretty easy to walk around with? Don’t expect perfection, of course, but if a dog shows signs of not being comfortable on a leash with someone they know, it could be a good indicator that you have a lot of work ahead of you. Leash walking is one of the most basic things that a dog needs to know, and it’s where most trainers and owners alike start – so if a dog doesn’t have good leash etiquette, you can bet that they aren’t well-trained in many other areas.
You do want to see how well a dog plays with you, so don’t be afraid to have some fun. Find out if your energy levels match, find out if she’s receptive to the types of games you like to play. She may not know how to fetch right now, but is she at least having fun and showing interest? Those are good signs. But be sure that you also attempt to settle her down after play. This can give you a good idea of what your dog will be like, because the playful time will help her burn off some of the anxious energy she’s been exhibiting due to being in the shelter. You also want to see how well she behaves after getting riled up.
The next thing you can do to judge a dog’s character is to ignore them for a bit. The best outcome here is that they act friendly towards you until they realize you aren’t paying attention, and then they wander off to hang out happily somewhere. If the dog is being pushy trying to get your attention, there are likely some serious anxiety issues that you’ll have to deal with in the future. This is how we knew that Silas would be a good fit for my friend, by the way. When we ignored him, he went and took a nap in some shade till we got his attention again – and seemed perfectly happy with that arrangement.
If you want a dog that is going to play nicely with your kids, the only way to judge the compatibility is to bring your kids along. Of course, don’t let your kids play with a dog that the kennel workers haven’t vetted for kid-friendliness, and always keep a strange dog on a leash when introducing them to children. But what you are looking for here is a dog that seems to be more interested in your kids than you. If the dog seems friendly, but would rather get attention from you than your kids, then it may be that after prolonged exposure, the dog will be annoyed by children.
Body language is key for understanding how a dog is feeling. If a dog has their ears back, tail tucked, and body low to the ground for your entire visit, they are likely dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety. They may not be a great choice unless you have a lot of patience and time for training. Watch for a dog that has a wagging tail, an upright and loose posture, and who isn’t panting or drooling too much. This dog is friendly and relaxed.
One important thing to test is how dogs act around food. Try offering him a piece of kibble (get a piece from the kennel worker if you can) or a basic training treat. He should be interested, but not aggressively so. Place the treat on the ground, and while the dog is eating, approach him – don’t stick your hand out! Just walk up to him. If he backs away or gets aggressive, be aware that you’ll have some feeding behavior issues to work out. If he simply keeps eating, you’re probably dealing with a confident, relaxed dog with good behavior.
Even if you think you’ve already met the right dog, always meet more than one dog in the shelter. It gives you some notes for comparison, because it’s easy to overlook certain things when you don’t have anything to compare it to. For example, you may think one dog is just really friendly, until you play with another dog who is relaxed – and then you realize that dog number one was actually quite anxious and clingy.
If you can, ask to interact with the dog outside, in the waiting room, in the kennel area, and anywhere else that is available. It’s important to see how a dog’s behavior changes with the situation. Play with him, sit quietly with him, walk with him, feed him, and do a variety of other activities to see how he acts with each type of activity.
If the dog has recently had a surgery (such as being spayed or neutered), or has to take medications, be sure to ask when he had his last dose. If a dog is drugged up, his behavior will be different than it will be at home. You’ll want to know if that seemingly calm dog will soon turn into a high-energy puppy.
Many shelters allow you a week or two to decide if a dog is really for you before they won’t let you “return” a dog. Be sure to ask if this is available. You may also be able to foster the dog for a month or two as a volunteer before deciding for sure to adopt. These programs can help you be 100% sure you’ve chosen the right dog.
If you can, take someone with you who doesn’t live with you, who can offer an outsider’s opinion. They’ll be less taken in by the cute doggie, and might be able to point out things you didn’t think of. For example, you might not be thinking about the fact that a dog with skin allergies smells bad – but your friend, who knows how much you love to entertain, could point out that this could put a damper on your monthly game nights.
Always ask the kennel workers as many questions as you can think of, and then ask some more. That’s what they are there for! Don’t be embarrassed to ask about everything from where the dog came from to his pooping habits. The better picture you can get of the dog before you adopt, the more chance you have of choosing the right dog.
If the shelter has a foster program, be sure to ask about the dogs that are being fostered in homes rather than those in the shelter. Dogs in homes are often better socialized, and have had one-on-one training, which can make them better candidates for families who need a well-behaved dog from the start.
If you really want to choose a great dog, pay a trainer to go with you to the shelter when you choose your dog. A trainer can turn their professional eye on the dogs available and pinpoint certain behavioral issues that would be hard to train out of a dog.
Finally, be sure that you give any new dog a long grace period if you can. Shelter dogs often have a lot of anxiety and they need time to adjust to being in a new home. If you can, allow them at least a month or more to get acclimated before you decide they just aren’t a good fit.
At the end of the day, it’s best to look at the facts about the dog objectively rather than “trusting your gut”. Dogs can trick us with those adorable puppy eyes and cute antics – think about this carefully, and you’ll end up with a great dog that is just right for you.
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