Ask the Trainer: Getting a dog? Pick the right one!
Last month the Ask the Trainer column gave advice on what to consider before adopting a dog, such as what energy level and exercise requirements would best suit your family’s lifestyle. Assuming you have honestly appraised the resources and time you have to give a dog, and you have identified your ideal physical characteristics (big or small, short hair or long, slobbery or not) and compatibility requirements (cat/kid/dog-friendly), then you’re ready to begin the search!
Whether you’re seeking a mixed breed or a purebred (according to the ASPCA, approximately 25 percent of dogs in shelters are purebreds), you’re sure to find your ideal canine companion at a shelter or rescue organization. Kudos to you for taking the socially responsible and extremely gratifying route of rescue. That said, take a note of the following tips when you launch into the wonderful (and often overwhelming) journey to find your family’s future best friend.
Be prepared to take your time.
It could take several weeks of perusing Petfinder.com and visiting shelters before you find your ideal match. According to the ASPCA, approximately 20 percent of dogs surrendered to shelters are from owners who adopted them from the shelter in the first place, so please don’t rush in and be overly swayed by simply the “looks” of the dog. If one trip to the shelter doesn’t result in any successful hook-ups, be prepared to walk away and come back again. And again.
Leave sadness and sympathy in the car.
Every shelter dog has a tale. A sad story is not the key factor in selecting your new family member. It’s important that you approach adoption from a position of hopefulness and positive energy. As much as you might wish you could save every single one of them, your goal now is to find the dog that will best fit with your family so he doesn’t end up back in the shelter.
Shelter staff may be able to tell you why the dog is in the shelter, if he has any known medical issues, or if he has been temperament tested. Most shelters will indicate whether the dog is suitable for a family with young children, other dogs, or cats.
No matter how much information is (or more likely, isn’t) available about the dog, spend as much time as possible with the dog that catches your eye.
Once you have identified a dog that fits your requirements, take a note of the following before you ask shelter staff for one-on-one get-acquainted time:
1. Stand back and watch how the dog reacts to other people.
Is he sitting quietly and calmly, watching with interest? Or is he not responsive when people approach? He could be not very people-friendly, or he could just be not feeling well. Ask staff if he is sick or is recovering from surgery.
Is he jumping and barking? He’s probably just excited to see people – a good sign – but you’ll need to do some training to teach him to settle down.
Does he lunge at the door or chase people’s feet as they walk by? If he calms down quickly after people pass, he’s probably just stressed out. Shelters are stressful places for dogs. This behavior, as well as pacing and whining, can be signs of stress.
Does he avoid eye contact and hang at the back of the kennel? The dog might be afraid of people, which means he will require a lot of training and might not ever become totally comfortable around them. Or, the dog might be sick or depressed. Ask shelter staff how long the dog has been there. He may just be sad and not unfriendly.
2. Walk up to the door of the kennel.
Notice the dog’s body language. Does he growl, stiffen up, back away, or does the hair on his back stand up? If so, keep looking. These are all warning signs of an unfriendly or fearful dog.
Does he jump up, dance around, show a relaxed, open mouth with a floppy tongue, lick your hand, bow down with his rump in the air, show a relaxed, open mouth with a floppy tongue? Great! These are all friendly, playful gestures.
3. Take the dog to the “get acquainted” area.
Because of the amount of time shelter dogs spend in confinement, they are often preoccupied with smelling their surroundings when taken out of their run. If you can get the dog to pay attention to you after a few minutes, that’s a good sign that there’s chemistry between the two of you.
Is the dog comfortable with being touched and gentle petting? You want a dog that isn’t afraid of human hands and enjoys petting. If he moves away, growls or freezes, keep looking.
4. Take the dog for a short walk.
A dog’s leash manners can’t be fully assessed in a shelter environment. He may pull or jump up, which can be dealt with in training. Just make sure you can physically control the dog for safety.
Notice if the dog has any “triggers” while on leash. Lunging at people or dogs walking by probably means the dog is not socialized. Again, this can be dealt with in training, but make sure you acknowledge that it will take some – maybe a lot of – work. Move on unless you’re an experienced dog owner and are up for the challenge (and expense) of training and socialization.
Does the dog freeze, hide, cower and refuse to move? This may be an extremely shy or fearful dog. This type of dog needs lots of training and socialization. Again, are you the right person for that job? And if you are, do you want that job? Be honest! Don’t let your heart do all the decision-making.
5. Finally, do a gut check.
Do you get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the dog? Does he seem comfortable with you? You’re adopting a new family member that will be around for years. Do your research and listen to your instincts!
In the meantime, download for free “Bringing Home Your New Dog: A Little Bit about Everything You Need to Know” to keep learning.
Disclosure: My experienced colleague and owner of The Local Bark, Kristin Minnie, and I help dogs and their owners with a variety of obedience and behavior problems.