How to Select a Shelter Dog
There is an old Chinese riddle about a man who is placed in a room with two identical exit doors. Behind one door is a beautiful Princess and behind the other is a hungry tiger. If you are contemplating adopting a shelter dog, your dilemma is similar, but trickier. Behind one kennel gate is the dog of your dreams - and behind the other is your worst canine nightmare. Unlike the ancient riddle, at a shelter you do get to see through the door before you make your choice. If you think that is an advantage, think again -- at the shelter, the only thing separating "Princess" and "Tiger" is a chain link fence and they look exactly alike.
Learning to tell the difference between a devil dog and a living angel begins with looking beyond the surface. While outward appearance is often the criterion by which we select a dog, it is the dog's general temperament that will make or break the adoption. If you can make your selection based on high behavioral standards and general health, rather than physical appearance, you are more likely to have a lasting relationship.
While behavior is obviously of great concern when making your choice, determining the dog's real temperament is not an easy task. So few dogs are comfortable with a kennel environment that you are not likely to see how the dog normally behaves. The dog who appears angelic in the kennel may have been surrendered after destroying four sofas and two rugs. Since there are no sofas or rugs at the shelter, you are unlikely to discover this behavior until you take the dog home. It is important to realize that any of the observations you make in the kennel may be partially or entirely mistaken. Though your behavioral picture will undoubtedly contain errors, it is still possible to get some general indications of the dog's personality.
Perhaps the easiest way to start your selection process is to try and identify which of the dogs are a "cut above". The way to find out if a dog is more stable than his companions is simple -- walk along the kennels and see who comes forward to greet you. A well balanced dog is a social creature. Depending on the way the dog reacts to your approach, you can start making some necessary judgements.
As you take your first look at a dog, notice whether he will casually meet your visual examination. If simple eye contact draws a growl and/or a lunge at the gate, cross that dog off your list. You are looking at a dominant aggressive dog who will probably give you trouble.
While pushy dogs should be ruled out automatically, the opposite reaction is not desirable, either. Dogs who hang back and show hesitation about meeting your gaze should be moved farther down on your list. Any form of shyness or fearfulness should cause concern. While some of these animals may be perfectly normal when removed from a kennel, there will be no real way to prove it until after the adoption. Taking a risk with an "iffy" dog may lead to trouble.
Along with aggressive and fearful dogs, the overly friendly dog may also be a poor choice as a pet. If the dog is frantic to get the slightest bit of attention, you may be looking at the very reason the dog was surrendered to the shelter. Few owners have the ability to sustain a 24 hour relationship with an animal. Most people need a dog who is comfortable with daily separation from its owner.
Of all the dogs in the kennel, the most promising of the bunch will greet you in a relaxed but interested way. These are dogs who like and enjoy human companionship but can handle the chaos of the kennel. This type of dog will usually stand comfortably close to the gate, lazily wagging his tail with an open mouth. Squat down to take a closer look at this guy -- he has passed the first test.
Once you have cut your list down to two or three solid choices, make arrangements to see the dog outside the kennel area. Most shelters have a "get acquainted" area that is quit and secure. When you do this, make sure the attendant goes with you, if possible. This is your best chance to watch how the dog reacts to human handling. Keep your eyes on the dog to see if it accepts the necessary contact that goes along with walking on a leash. While there is no black and white rule about this, after you see two or three dogs you will at least have enough information to compare them. Use this as one of the criteria for making your decision.
Once you are in a quiet area with the dog, take some time to ignore him completely. Almost every shelter dog is looking for human attention, so that fact that the dog is interested in you is not significant. A more important point is whether the dog is pushy and insistent when he doesn't get what he wants. The easiest way to ignore the dog is to engage the shelter attendant in conversation about the dog's history. If the dog refrains from pawing at you and jumping up, he has just passed test number two.
Once the dog has settled down, you are in a much better position to see his normal attitude. The excitement of leaving the kennel is over. The dog has had a chance to investigate the adoption area. A normal dog will soon be relaxed but attentive to you. In a normal tone of voice, say the dog's name and see if you get eye contact. If the dog looks at you, ask the dog to "sit." Make sure you don't say it twice. Studiously ignore the dog until he sits. If he does, give him some well-earned praise and pat his chest - he just passed the third test with flying colors.
The more time you take selecting a dog, the better the chance that you will pick the right one. Basing your choice on physical and behavioral health will give you the best chance to start a long-term relationship. While the rules of selecting a dog are not written in stone, here are a few guidelines that can help you make this important decision.
* Look for a dog that appears comfortable, outgoing and friendly -- even amid the din of the kennel. Try to stay away from extremes on either end of the spectrum.
* Try to find an animal that is interested in all of the people passing by the cage - not just you.
* Be cautious about taking an animal that appears fearful or shy, even if the animal is more outgoing when taken to a private adoption area.
* Any sign of aggression should rule out a dog, instantly.
* There is a common misconception that by taking a "less adoptable" dog, someone else will surely take the "more adoptable" dogs. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. There are only so many potential homes to go around. If you take a dog that looks forlorn or fearful, there is a good chance that a normal, healthy, friendly dog will be destroyed because of your selection.
* Avoid taking an animal based purely on information provided by the original owner and observations by shelter staff. The original owner was unlikely to be truthful about any behaviors that might prevent the dog from being adopted. The shelter worker is unlikely to know more than whether the dog does well in a kennel setting.
* While the glowing reports of the original owner may not be trusted, disparaging remarks are also suspect. Most pet owners are poorly equipped to shape and maintain their dog's behavior. They are often forced to give up the animal due to simple ignorance. When in doubt, take the time to call a trainer or behaviorist to find out what it would take to fix the dog's problem.
* Be willing to walk out the door if you do not find exactly the animal you are looking for. The more time you spend searching for the right dog, the better chance you have of finding him.