How to choose a shelter dog. Go to any animal shelter and you’ll likely find that there’s no short supply of canine companions longing to go to their furever homes. The typical shelter will have a diverse selection of dogs: large, small, long-haired, short-haired, high-strung, laid back, purebred, crossbred, and everything in between. So how do you sort through the differences to pick the right pooch?
Well, we’ve got an app for that…well, not really an app, but in this edition of Animal Facts, we’ll give you some tips to help you choose a shelter dog that will fit perfectly into your family and your hearts.
Do your homework
Before you begin your search, you should do your homework. You can begin by figuring out what kind of dog you want. It’s not necessary to narrow your selection down to a particular breed, because it’s more important to decide what personality type and energy level best suits your lifestyle. Besides, chances are good you’ll end up with a mixed-breed pup anyway. Which is ok, because mix breeds are awesome.
You should also take the time to find a good shelter. I’m sure there are at least a couple nearby. There are two shelter types: open-intake and limited-intake. Open-intake facilities, often funded by cities or counties, accept dogs and cats that are picked up by animal control officers, as well as those brought in by people who could no longer care for them, often called a surrender.
Limited-intake facilities rarely accept dogs surrendered by their owners. Instead, they pull animals from open-intake shelters, which allows them to be more selective and helps control overcrowding.
Limited-intake shelters, since they are not publicly funded are usually staffed by volunteers, who take more of an interest in the animals that come through their doors.
There are pros and cons to both shelter types. While a limited-intake facility might afford the opportunity to get to know each animal better, the adoption fee will be higher.
An open-intake facility will have a wider selection of furbabies to choose from, but the staff will be less likely to get to know them on an individual basis and will be less knowledgeable of any particular dog’s behavior.
Go to the Shelter
The next step is to visit the shelter. Pick an “off” day (preferably a weekday), when the shelter isn’t as busy. Don’t go on a day that they’re offering reduced fees or having a special event, because it will be harder to spend time with the dogs, they will be more anxious, and the staff won’t have as much time to answer any questions you might have. Also, try to schedule your visit around your time off work.
For instance, if you’re off on the weekend, schedule your visit on a Friday so you’ll have a few days to bond with your pal and get them settled in. Heck, why not visit on a Thursday and make it a three day weekend? Woo hoo!
In order to choose the right dog for yourself and your family, you must be able to “read between the lines.”
As you peruse the pups and check out their kennel card descriptions, consider the possibility that a dog described as “energetic” or “adventurous” might actually be a hyperactive handful that would be better off with someone that is athletic or looking for a dog with working breed tendencies. If the card reads, “laid back” or “chill” the dog might be very shy or not well-socialized. But then again, maybe the description is spot on, so never base your decision solely on a kennel card. Find out more about the dog’s temperament by asking the staff about its personality and how they get along with the pup on a daily basis. Then move on to the next phase—observation and interaction.
Observation and Interaction – How to Choose a Shelter Dog
To get an idea of what daily life with a particular pooch would be like, observe them in several different situations.
Have the staff walk the dog on a leash. Look for any indicators of aggression, fear, or agitation, like growling, barking or charging at people or other dogs. These behaviors could mean that the dog has not been properly socialized, or could indicate an impulse control problem.
Next, get them excited—then allow them time to calm down. Toss a ball or toy around, get them to chase you, or speak in a high-pitched voice. Do whatever it takes to get them riled up for a few minutes, then suddenly stop. Sit back and watch how they react to the abrupt shift in activity. Do they quickly flip the switch to the “off” position and chill next to you? Or do they continue to romp around with abandon?
Unless your switch is always in the “on” position, you may want to think twice about taking a dog home a dog that may have high-strung tendencies.
Once you’ve spent a good amount of time together, ignore your new bud. It may seem heartless, but when you take a dog home there will be times when you can’t focus all your attention on them, so ignoring them is a good way to gauge their susceptibility to separation anxiety. If they follow you or hang close for a few minutes, then quietly find something else to do, odds are the dog is well-balanced and can handle being alone for short periods of time.
Another way to measure a dog’s anxiety level is to offer them food. If they sniff the treat, then eat it, you know the pup is relaxed—and you’ll have a new best friend. On the other hand, if they lunge at the treat, freeze, or refuse to take it, they’re probably stressed or uncomfortable.
How to choose a shelter dog for kids
Got kids? Bring ‘em with you. How the dog relates to children is perhaps the most important part of your assessment. If the dog likes your kids (or someone else’s kids) more than it likes you, then then they will be a great addition to your family. A dog that ignores the kids or is indifferent towards them is probably better off with someone who lives alone, or a couple sans little ones.
And if you can, hire a trainer to come with you as your wingperson. A professional trainer will be invaluable to your selection process. Their expert eyes will notice a lot of things that you might miss, especially if you are a novice dog owner.
And, establishing a rapport with a trainer early in a dog’s life (or life with you) is never a bad decision.
Check out Brain Training for Dogs to learn how to use your dog’s natural intelligence to stop bad behavior.
Our final word of advice is to visit the shelter at least twice or at least meet more than one dog. We know that love at first sight happens, but you want to be sure you’ve found “The One”, because as difficult as it can be to find your perfect match, it can be infinitely more difficult to let your first love go.
I’m often asked, “What would be the best dog for me?” My answer is usually something along the lines of “I don’t know, but you’ll likely find it at a shelter.”
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