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— February 28, 2012 —
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Shop or Adopt (Part Two)

Last week, we started a series on getting a new dog. We talked about adopting from a rescue versus buying a dog from a breeder or pet store. This week, we’d like to “dig a little deeper” into the idea or adopting from a rescue.

Let’s say that you’ve made the decision to get a dog (great) and the decision to adopt a homeless pet (even better). Now, where do you start? This week, we’ll discuss what to look for when deciding which dog to adopt.

First, what are you looking for in a dog? Are you a health nut, who wants a running partner, or a senior citizen who would like a calm companion? Do you go to the office 40 plus hours a week, or work from home? Do you like a fluffy, long coated dog, or do you want to avoid the grooming requirements that come with the long coat? All these issues, and many others will factor into your decision. It’s wise to write down a list of your needs and concerns. Once you’re made a checklist of exactly what you are looking for, it’s time to go and meet some dogs.

The options here are endless. If you have decided on a particular breed and found a pure breed rescue, they will arrange for you to meet their dogs. This is often a good option. Since the local rescues usually know their individual dogs very well, they can introduce you to dogs matching your lifestyle. They may also be able to give you more background information on a dog. There are wide variations in the adoption process between rescues, but a responsible rescue will have some formal adoption standards. They will also want to check your references and do a home check.

If you decide to go to your local animal control adoption center, you will likely have the option of walking through the rows of needy dogs. As you walk through, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the sheer number of dogs there. I’ve been there and there are literally hundreds of dogs all barking and jumping, seemingly all saying, “Take me, I’m the one!”

If a dog catches your eye in either of these situations, you will be given a chance to meet the dog one-on-one. This is where the true evaluation begins. Whatever you do, don’t just pick the cutest one, or the happiest (or saddest) one. There are a few things you should look at that will help you make the right choice.

There are volumes of information on how to evaluate a rescue dog. I’ve tried to condense it to a few simple observations you should make with a dog to evaluate it’s potential for your home. Some of these things are red flags. Most are simply to evaluate the lifestyle that a particular dog will need. They are just to give an idea of what kind of temperament/energy level the dog might have. This is written assuming that the shelter has already done basic evaluations and is not offering dangerous or aggressive dogs for adoption. I like to start off with the dog in a quiet, secure area where the dog can be off leash.
  1. Does the dog generally interact with you calmly or excitedly right out of the kennel? Does it settle down within 1 minute, 5 minutes or longer? If a dog that has been kenneled for an extended period comes out and behaves calmly, then you can infer that it will be a pretty mellow companion. Keep in mind this may be the first time this dog has been out of it’s kennel in weeks. Some extra energy can be expected since they may not have had sufficient exercise for a quite some time.

  2. Is the animal scared or timid? How long does it take for the dog to gain it’s confidence? Does the dog avoid you? While it is not uncommon for a new area to be intimidating, if a dog does not become comfortable quickly in new environments you should consider this in your evaluation. Fearful dogs can be good pets, but often they require a more experienced owner. Lastly, if a dog simply refuses to come out of the kennel due to fear, this could denote a serious issue. If you are inexperienced with fearful dogs, it may be best to look for a more confident dog.

  3. Startle test: Drop a metal bowl onto a tile floor, and evaluate the dog’s response. An ideal response is a slight startle, then an investigative sniff. If the dog responds with growling or complete panic, that would be a red flag.

  4. Once the dog has become comfortable with you, try tossing a toy. If he ignores it, he’ll probably not be terribly possessive. If he brings it to you, he wants to have a job. A dog that takes the toy and runs, trying to keep it away from you, may be a bit mischievous. While this is not a bad thing, he may require more exercise and training to prevent problem behaviors.

  5. If the dog is a young puppy, you are looking for friendly and outgoing behaviors. Any puppy should be happy to meet new people. Avoidance is not normal in a puppy. On this note, if you can meet either of the puppies parents, do it. The parents give you an idea of how your puppy might turn out. If the parents make you uncomfortable, this should be noted. (A mother dog with her puppies may be protective. This is normal and an experienced shelter should not introduce you to a mother and her pups too early.) Try rolling the puppy on it’s back. There should be a little struggle, but no major protest. The sooner it settles down, the more compliant the puppy will be as an adult. Also, a puppy that play bites is normal. This alone does not signal that he will be aggressive as an adult, but he will need some training on bite inhibition.

  6. Offer the dog a suitable treat. If he snatches it, then he will need training to take treats softly. Children love to give dogs treats, but are often not good at presenting them properly to avoid being scratched. A soft mouth is desirable if you have young children in your home.

  7. How has the dog responded to petting. I’m sure you have offered pets by now, but was the dog’s posture “soft” to your hand or did his body stiffen? I always advise potential adopters to look for a dog who softens up and allows petting all over the body. Also, make sure you can inspect the dogs ears and feet without too much resentment.

  8. Lastly, put a collar and leash on the dog. Does it allow you to lead it around for a walk? If he pulls, he may just need training. If the dog bites at the leash aggressively or panics at the idea of being led on leash, there may be bigger issues. See whether the dog understands any basic obedience commands. If he can sit or down, then he may have some training already.
These are a few of the things that I look for when I evaluate a dog for a pet situation. As I said earlier, no one thing is an immediate disqualifier, but they help to determine which dog in a particular group would be the best fit in your home.