10 tips for selecting the right dog – for you – at an animal shelter
You can see him through the cage door just begging for attention: cute little brown eyes, soft plushy ears, and a wagging tail, designed to pull on your heart strings. It’s so easy to lose your heart at an animal shelter. There are so many adorable animals vying for your attention that you may find yourself wanting to take them all home. Of course, all the animals deserve good homes. But how do you find that special companion animal that’s the best fit for you and your family?
As a potential adopter, your role is to create the best living situation possible for the pet you are bringing into your life. And the best situation is one that is compatible to both you and the pet. Knowing what qualities you want in a companion animal beforehand and how to search for those qualities can prevent you from adopting an animal impulsively or from responding to pressure from well-meaning friends and family.
To ensure emotion doesn’t override reason, make some decisions before walking through those shelter doors. Begin by examining your living space, lifestyle, and budget. If you are at home all day, you may decide you have time to feed a puppy the four times a day that’s required. If you work away from home, perhaps an older dog or cat would be the best companion for you.
Always consider the qualities and personality you want too before size and appearance. For example, a large shepherd-mix might do better in an apartment than a smaller, more energetic terrier (but your landlord may prefer the terrier over the shepherd, so double check before adopting if you rent).
Before going to a shelter, know everything you want in a pet except what the animal will look like. Very often the pet with the qualities you are looking for will come in an unexpected package.
While you are deciding on your family’s pet criteria, shelters are screening animals for certain qualities too. In addition to a health exam, some shelters perform basic temperament screenings to find animals who are friendly and sociable, both with people and other animals.
Shelters can help adopters identify certain qualities in a pet, such as friendliness and attentiveness, but you need to pinpoint the traits you are looking for in a companion pet. Here are some guidelines to help you better determine a dog’s personality.
Check out all the dogs first. You may be tempted to stop looking after seeing only a few dogs, but if there are 200 dogs at the shelter, you owe it to them and yourself to see them all. Here’s an insider tip: Some shelters put their most adoptable dogs further back in the kennels to give the less adoptable ones a better chance at being seen by you.
Find out how long a dog has been at the shelter. Dogs need to two to three days to adjust to their new environment. New arrivals will probably be looking for their owners and may not be interested in you. If the dog has been there for a while though and still seems distracted, then the dog may be a bit unfocused and require more time and patience on your part to train.
Find out who is friendly. The best buffer against aggression is a very social dog. To find a very friendly and sociable canine, use the “hand and talk” test used by animal behaviorists. First, put your hand out to see if the dog will sniff or lick your hand. Then talk to the dog. Social dogs will respond quickly by coming to you and even rubbing their bodies up against you. The dog that seeks out people and wants contact with you will generally do better in social situations.
Meet with the dog in a quiet indoor environment. When you find a dog that you would like to know better, ask the staff where you can visit quietly with the animal. To see if the dog is interested in people, spend a few minutes ignoring him or her. A very social dog will seek out your attention within a minute or two.
Test the dog’s touch tolerance. Stroke the dog along the back about 10 times. Does the dog want you to continue petting or has he or she pulled away by now. This tells you a little about how much physical contact a dog is willing to tolerate. Some people don’t mind having a dog with little touch tolerance, but it’s nice to know that before you go home, especially if you prefer a dog to be more tolerant around children.
Test the dog’s arousal/calm response. Jump around and make squeaking noises for about 15 seconds. See how excited the dog gets and how long it takes for him or her to calm down. Don’t expect them to quiet right away, but they should start settling down after about a minute. Some dogs have trouble with their on and off switch and may require extra effort and patient on your part to quiet. Nothing wrong with that so long as you know what you will need to do in terms of training.
Test the dog for separation anxiety. Walk out of the room and leave the dog alone for a few minutes. When you re-enter the room, check his reaction. Does he seem stressed or out of breathe? Very often these signs indicate the dog may suffer from separation anxiety and may require extra patience and attention on your part to help him or her overcome the panic of being separated from people.
Walk the dog. At this point, the dog will be more interested in the smells and sights of the great outdoors than you. The dog will also pull on the leash, but that has no bearing on future training. Most shelter dogs are excited to be out of the shelter. What you want to know is how the dog reacts to noise and traffic and is the dog prone to chasing moving objects, like cars or feet. If the dog startles easily and you live on a busy street, a walk around the block could be a nightmare for this dog.
Test the dog’s motivation. An animal motivated by a ball or a treat is much easier to train. If the dog does not react to a treat (keep in mind it may have just eaten) or a tossed ball, and appears aloof, the animal may not be properly motivated for obedience training. Dogs that want to please people — and get rewarded with love or a treat — tend to be the easiest to train.
Determine if the dog is child-friendly. It’s always a good sign when a dog approaches children first. In homes with children under seven, it’s really important that the dog prefer the children to the adults. No matter how great the kids are, eventually they will do too much to the dog. If the dog has no tolerance buffer for children, the dog may over react when the kids get too crazy.
Just like people, dogs learn at their own pace and sometimes that pace is not in sync with an owner. Thats why a lot of animals end up at shelters — not because they are bad or can’t be trained. In fact, all dogs, regardless of age, have the potential to learn. It simply comes down to what you can devote to a particular dog to help him or her realize their potential. And if you know ahead of time what kind of commitment you can make to help your companion adjust in their new home, you will have taken those first steps towards finding the right dog for you.
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Cathy Rosenthal (aka The Pet Pundit), CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist
Cathy brings more than 35 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.