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Clicker Training in the Greater Phoenix Area By Gary Wilkes

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Dog Care and Behavior Articles

Adopting a Shelter dog"
(published in DOGS USA Annual)

  Author's Note: This article started out with a pretty straight forward introduction about how to select a pet from an animal shelter. Then I received a phone call from a couple who reminded me of one of the  many possibilities awaiting the inexperienced adopter....

Tom and Susan Kreitz own a lovely, female, Labrador Retriever named Jezebel (Jezzy, for short). Once Jezzy  passed the puppy stage, Tom and Sue decided to get another dog. When they went to the shelter, they envisioned getting an older puppy. The figured that a six-ish month old pup would adjust easily to the family, and would take  the position of Jezzy's "little brother" and playmate.

At first, everything went as planned. The shelter staff pointed out a male Labrador  mix who fit the Kreitz's criteria  perfectly. As they examined the lab, two shelter workers were talking about the female Golden Retriever in the next kennel. They said that she was a stray that had displayed some aggression toward the shelter staff and was  scheduled to be euthanized the next morning.

Tom and Sue listened to the conversation in amazement. The idea that anyone  could destroy a purebred Golden  Retriever was crazy. They were sure that in the right home, this dog would make a fine pet. As for the aggression, they discounted  it as a result of rough treatment by some insensitive dog catcher. Tom and Sue knew that Golden  Retrievers aren't aggressive. After about 30 minutes of  wrangling with the reluctant staff, they adopted the Golden instead of the Lab.

 That night, they brought "Sunshine" home to meet Jezzy. As they opened the front  door, Jezzy bounded forward to meet them. Sunshine gave a low growl and snapped at the pup. As Jezzy persisted in her overly friendly greeting,  Sunshine lunged forward and attacked the younger dog. The intensity of the assault caught Tom completely off guard. The leash slipped from his hand and tangled up on the  ground beneath the combatants. As he realized that  Sunshine was trying to kill Jezzy, he grabbed the Golden's collar and tried to pull her back. That's when  Sunshine decided to deal with this new threat and bit Tom's forearm. The next few hours saw Tom and Jezzy go to their  respective emergency rooms, and Sunshine go back to the pound – for quarantine.

 While the Kreitz's experience was not typical of shelter adoptions, it is certainly not rare. On any given day,  people adopt shelter dogs based primarily on emotional appeal and undependable assumptions. Though not all adopters are misguided enough to adopt an aggressive animal, many select a dog with no real thought for the  future. Often, their lack of forethought makes the animal's salvation an uncertain and temporary affair.

Avoiding the pitfalls of a bad adoption starts by learning more about the way  shelters work and examining your  reasons for selecting a shelter pet, over other sources. The key to making the right choice is to know that you have realistic expectations, and how to realize your adoption plan.

The Shelter Experience : The first step toward understanding how to adopt a shelter dog is to understand how an animal gets to be a "shelter dog." Where do shelter animals come from? Who owned them?  Have they been abused? Are they healthy? Without finding the answers to these questions, you will have difficulty navigating the process of adopting a pet.

Where do the animals come from? Shelter animals come from the same sources as any other dogs. They are the result of random breeding, puppy mills and purebred show dogs. The purebred pet shop  puppy that sold for $800.00 at Christmas could easily be at the local animal shelter by Memorial Day.  The litters of mixed breed pups that flood shelters each year are the result of the same back yard breedings that are listed in  the newspaper. So, from a genetic standpoint, shelter dogs are no better or worse than the vast majority of dogs available for sale.

What types of dogs are at a shelter? While shelters have no  control over what type of animals will be brought in, they usually receive a pretty good cross section of the general, local dog community.  For most common breeds  and mixes of those breeds, animals are readily available. If you are looking for a Labrador Retriever or German Shepherd, you will be able to find a dog within a  few days. Less common breeds,  like Beagles and Springer Spaniels, may come in every few days or weeks, depending on the volume of animals received by the  shelter. Some common, mostly smaller breeds, such as poodles or poodle mixes, are very  adoptable and are often adopted as soon as they are available. Many  shelters have a random selection process to decide who gets a dog that several people want to adopt. Other shelters have a mini-auction that can boost the  price of the animal to several hundred dollars.

What age range is available? Most shelters will accept animals regardless of age. Depending on  shelter policy, puppies are usually available for adoption after about 7 weeks of age. It is a good idea to be skeptical of puppies who are under a minimum of six weeks. The top end of the age range is mostly a matter of  taste and judgment. Many older animals adapt well to new homes. The average life span of a dog is about 10 years. If your adoptive pet is over five years  old, your time with them will be limited. It is good to consider that  there are always plenty of young adults or adolescents, who have never had a chance to experience  a stable and loving home. If you select and older pet, out of pity, one of those youngsters is not going to get adopted.

 While age is not a huge impediment to making the perfect adoption, it may still effect your decision. If you are looking for a puppy, age is relatively unimportant. Adult dogs are usually in a shelter because they have somehow  lost their appeal.  By far, most adult dogs are surrendered to a shelter for behavioral reasons. Their "offenses" range from serious aggression and destruction to simple house-training problems. In the most cases, the problems  can be fixed with a minimal commitment of time, effort and money. In some cases the animal has been allowed  to display the behavior for years, and will be difficult if not impossible to "fix."

 The Guiltless Pooch: Wrong Place at the wrong time. Many of the dogs in a shelter are there because of unanticipated problems in the family. A child who becomes allergic to the family pet  may cause a  concerned parent to reluctantly find a new home for Fido. Sometimes single dog owners die and leave their heirs the task of caring for their remaining pets. The  assumption that every dog is surrendered by  uncaring owners is often mistaken.

While there are some honorable reasons for taking an animal to a shelter, some pet owners have little or no excuse  for their decision. It is not uncommon for a person to give up a Collie because it is difficult to groom, a St. Bernard, because it is too large, or a Beagle because it howls. These dogs are victims of their owner's unrealistic  expectations or ignorance.

Who owned them? There are two types of dogs found in shelters. Either the dog is voluntarily given up  by its owner, or it is a stray. Stray dogs are those who have been found by a citizen or animal control officer and taken to the shelter ideally, to be reclaimed. While a stray can become a fine pet, it may also have bad habits that  may not surface until after the adoption. It is a good idea to quiz the  shelter workers who have handled the dog to find out any information about the dog's temperament. A stray dog is a good example of "what you see, may not  be what your get." In the majority of cases, you will have to wait for several days to adopt a stray, to give the owner a chance to reclaim their pet.

  The other type of shelter dog is one who has been given up by its owner. An "owner released" dog may be at the shelter through no fault of its own. Often, a fine dog is released because of simple ignorance or a lack of  dedication by the original owner. Owner released animals often have a more complete history than strays.  You may be able to find out if the animal has any medical problems, are most likely to have a known background,  including medical information, obedience training and dietary needs. While this information can be useful, it should be taken with a grain of salt – the original owner is unlikely to say anything that might prevent the dog from being  adopted. Owner released dogs are the property of the shelter and may be adopted immediately.

Have they been abused? A common assumption is that an animal who appears fearful, in a shelter, is  one who had experienced abusive treatment in a former home. For many dogs this is an incorrect assumption. It is far more likely  that the sudden confinement in a kennel is the real culprit. These dogs are frightened by the unusual  nature of the experience rather than any particular history of abuse. Dogs that have been exclusively around humans may be terrified by being surrounded by "aliens", i.e. other dogs. Once the animal is away from the kennel  area it may display perfectly normal behavior. It is always a good idea to try to examine the animal in a relatively quiet setting before you make a decision. Many  shelters have "get acquainted" areas that are more intimate than a  cement run amidst barking dogs.

Are they healthy? Every animal in every shelter has been exposed to disease, either just prior to, or  once it arrives. The odds that at least one dog is incubating an infectious disease is always high. Regardless of the efforts of the staff,  it is not uncommon for adopted animals to get sick after they are adopted. These illnesses are  often due to exposure that occurred prior to arriving at the shelter. Your veterinarian can make a pretty good determination based on the incubation period of the particular disease, as to where the animal was exposed.  Almost every shelter will offer some form of free health exam as a part of the adoption. While there is always the potential for a problem, it is dependent upon how the  particular shelter practices good sanitation procedures and  vaccination of their animals. A good rule of thumb is to be cautious of a shelter that always runs at full capacity. A packed kennel is the prime location for the spread of disease.

The Human half of the Human/Animal Bond.

 Once you know what type of dogs are available, it is time to examine the other half of the equation – what is your motivation for adopting and animal from a shelter? The most common reason for adopting from a shelter is to help  fight the tragic over abundance of pets. In the face of millions of unwanted animals, many pet owners  prefer to take a shelter animal rather than one specifically bred for sale. This desire to combine the selection of a pet with  saving an unwanted animal is a wonderful  goal. As long as the primary goal is to find an animal who can share your life, this motivation is often rewarded by all the blessings of pet ownership. If your goal is to  truly to save and share  the life of an unwanted pet, you should proceed with great caution and patience. If you find yourself "chomping at the bit," to get an animal,  even though it does not match your ideal, you may have to look closer at your  motivation. There are always going to be excess pets to save. Waiting a day or a  week to find the right dog is often the key to insuring a better relationship.

 Another motivation for adopting from a shelter is to be able to see a large and varied selection of animals. While a pet shop may have a dozen or more puppies on display, a shelter may have as many as a hundred animals, of all  ages and type. For the person who is looking for variety, expect to make several trips to the shelter before you find the one you want.

 If you are interested in exploring animals shelters as the source of your next pet, here are a few things to consider…

Don't focus on purebred animals. The same pup that came from a puppy mill, six months ago is now an 8 month  old shelter animals. The appearance of being a purebred is no indication that the animal mentally or physically superior to the mixed breed dog in the next kennel. The common belief that kennel club  registration indicates an  implied warrantee is unfounded. The belief that a purebred is "more valuable" is obviously disproved by the circumstances. If the animal is in a shelter, its owner considered it expendable. The value of a shelter animal is tied  directly to the dog's capacity to become a loving member of your family. Mixed breed dogs are equally likely to be "love sponges" and they have one attribute that cannot be purebreds do not – they are "one of a kind."

   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. There is no way to tell if the animal's normal behavior is actually fearful or outgoing. The  safest animal to select is one that is comfortable amidst the din of the kennel and in a quiet area.

  Avoid taking an animal that has an obvious physical or behavioral problem. The person counseling you is  interested in "making a sale". There is a real temptation for a shelter worker to shade the truth about an animal in order to get it adopted. Be prepared to make a phone call to your veterinarian, or a behaviorist to make sure that  the pet's problem will not be insurmountable.

  There is a common misconception that by taking a "less adoptable" dog, someone else will surely take the "more  adoptable" dogs. In the world of the humane movement, there are only so many adoptions that are going to take place – and nine times too many dogs looking for homes. Many healthy, young, attractive  animals are destroyed  each year. If you take an animal that is unattractive, ill, or older, in order to "save a life", there is a perfectly healthy, attractive, well behaved dog that will be euthanized.

   Try to find an animal that is interested in all of the people passing by the cage – not just you. While it makes a heartwarming story that your dog frantically flung  himself into your arms, it may not insure that you will have a  happy relationship. Many dogs will display such behavior when they recognize someone who merely  resembles their original owner – the very person who brought the animal to the shelter. Your resemblance may cause an  instant rapport, but may also trigger the  same unacceptable behaviors that caused the original owner to give up the dog.

  Pet owners who release their dogs to a shelter are not universally "bad" people.  They are often forced to give up the animal due to unanticipated and unavoidable circumstances. For you, this information is simultaneously "good  news and bad  news. The good news is that the animal may be a wonderful creature who had the bad fortune to live with an idiot. The bad news is that when confronted with the  possibility the animal could be destroyed the  loving and guilt ridden owner may take the easy way out and lie about the dog's true nature.

When you handle the animal, make sure a shelter worker assists you. Watch the  way the animal reacts to the  brisk and efficient movements of the staff member. Look for any signs that the animal is hand-shy or skittish. Any  sign of aggression  should rule out the dog, instantly. It does not matter if the dog "had a reason" to be cautious of a stranger. You are considering bringing this dog into your home, where all your friends and family members will  initially be "strangers." There are nine adoptable dogs for every potential adoptive home. Several of those animals  will be just as cute, just as intelligent, and completely friendly. Forever worrying that your animal will bite someone is not the best foundation for a relationship.

*Visit your veterinarian before you go shopping. Veterinarians know the general health of the majority of adopted animals that pass through their clinics. Knowing that a particular shelter has the healthiest animals can give you an  indication of the level of care and concern of the shelter staff.

Be willing to walk out the door if you do not find exactly the animal you are  looking for. The advantage of the  shelter is that it has a high volume of dogs – over a period of time you will have the opportunity to see many animals before you make your decision. A snap judgment at the shelter is as likely to end in disaster as the same  type of decision at a pet shop or a breeder's kennel.

 If the animal obviously is having trouble adapting to your home, be willing to admit it. If you are not willing to make a commitment to fix the problem, take the animal back immediately.

  Occasionally, a potential adopter will see an animal on its way into the shelter and decide to circumvent the shelter process. While there is no law that prevents you  from merely taking the animal from it's owner, you are  accepting a real risk. The owner would dearly love to hand over the dog to you rather than surrendering it to  the shelter. If the owner is less than truthful about the dog's temperament or health, you have just volunteered to  accept responsibility for any potential problems.  

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