Adopting a dog from your local animal shelter is an echoing act of kindness and simply a great way of finding your next companion. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 1 in every 4 dogs at the pound is purebred, there are puppies as well as adults available, and many are fine dogs that end up at the shelter through no fault of their own (divorce and illness in the family are common reasons that otherwise wonderful pets are turned in).
Armed with such positive knowledge and your exercise of social responsibility when you walk in to the animal shelter, choosing your new pet is still overwhelming. Many dogs do have behavior issues; some are unfit for certain lifestyles. How can you choose the one best for you?
You can perform a short behavior test on your prospective pet that will give you an idea of the dog’s temperament. It can also help you see if the dog has the potential to be aggressive. Do remember that the tips given here for testing the dog’s temperament are not foolproof, and there are some behavior issues the dog could have that won’t show up until after you bring your him home.
Some dogs act completely different inside and out of their kennels, so you should always ask to see a dog you’re interested in outside of its kennel. Most shelters have a play yard where you can go in with the dog. On your way there, don’t count lack of training (for example, pulling on leash) too harshly against the dog because it is something that can easily be remedied once he’s is in training classes. (You WILL be taking him to classes, won’t you?)
Once you are with the dog, see how his general attitude is. Is he excited and wants to run and sniff everything? Is he frightened and nervous, with eyes rolled back in his head? Is he just apathetic? See what the dog’s general personality is and if it’s compatible with yours and your lifestyle.
If you can turn the dog’s head towards you, you can perform a test to see how dominant he is. Try to hold the dog’s head gently in your hands. Remember never to force the dog’s head your way. If he tosses his head out of your grasp he may be stubborn, or very excited and potentially difficult to train. Some dogs do this but will allow you to hold their head for a few seconds, while others will just let you hold it for as long as you want. When you have the chance, look the dog in the eyes. Ideally the dog will look at you, blink, and look away. Blinking is a sign of friendliness in dogs. A scared, nervous, or shy dog will refuse to look at you and may have his eyes rolled as far away from you as possible. A dominant dog will look you straight in the eye without blinking or looking away. He will be very dominant and will need a firm hand during training. Likewise, that is the first sign of an aggressive dog.
Next, see if there is somewhere where you can sit down, like a bench or chair, and pet the dog. Do not lean over the dog (in case he tries to bite you) but you may kneel down to get to his level if no chair is available, or just pet him standing up if he is big enough. See how he reacts to petting, and if he does not stiffen up or growl, pet him a little harder. Think of it like giving him a massage. Some dogs love this, and will lean in to you, while others will tense up and get nervous. This shows how comfortable the dog is with semi-rough handling. If you have a home with children you do not want a dog that is anxious about being petted hard, because younger children can be unintentionally rough with dogs and older children will like to roughhouse when they play. But if you do not plan on playing games with your dog that involve the two of you tackling each other a dog that gets just a bit tense is okay. An important note: Be careful when rubbing the rear end of certain large breed dogs. They may have arthritis in their hips which could cause them to snap at you, because you cause them pain by touching that area.
Next is the “pinch” test. This test determines how the dog will act around a groomer (or you) when he needs to get his feet cleaned, and also how sensitive he is. Pick up one of the dog’s paws and gently apply pressure to the skin between his toes. You should use about the pressure you would to press a Ziploc bag together-nothing sharp or harmful. Ideally, the dog will act like nothing happened, or just act curious about why you’re picking up his foot. But some dogs will pull away. Don’t let this discourage you from getting the dog, thinking you’ll never be able to trim his claws. It’s a nervous tick that can easily be fixed, but the sensitive dog may not be suitable for a home with small children who may poke and pinch him unnecessarily.
Now for the fun part! You’re going to assess how playful the dog is by (drum roll) playing with him! Some people like to play wrestle their dog by grabbing near the front of him and pushing him from side to side (not enough to knock the dog over, of course.) Burly breeds, like pit bulls, usually like playing that sort of game. Other people play tag with their dog by tapping him and making like their going to run away. Both of these games are very physical and dogs will often mouth and jump on you, so be careful. Some people do not enjoy playing these types of games with their dog, and some dogs do not like to play these games. You might just try patting your thighs and saying something in an excited voice (“Come here doggie!!”). Most dogs will wag their tail and approach you and then paw at you. That is optimal behavior for a low-energy dog. It’s important to make sure that the dog’s activity level meets yours. You don’t want to end up with a dog who never settles down if you’re only going to see it after work when you’re tired. Likewise, someone interested in activities like Frisbee or agility won’t be happy with a mellow pooch. Lastly, you should never feel uncomfortable when playing with a dog. Some jump excessively and could knock you over, is that something you’re willing to train out of the dog? And if a dog ever growls menacingly during play, STOP. Some aggressive dogs do not know what playtime is, instead seeing it as a challenge they’ll be determined to win.
There’s an important trump card to this whole test, and that is the shy dog. The shy dog will tense up when you pet him, pull his feet away, and look at you with big and sad eyes when you try to play with him. Doesn’t seem too fun, does he? But many shy dogs just need someone to crack open their shell. With love and care they can become wonderful pets. If you have space in your heart for such a dog and are ready to give him the gentle guidance he needs to be a happy dog, you would be saving a dog that would probably otherwise not get adopted.
When you’ve found your perfect match, don’t forget to ask the shelter staff if they know of any behavior problems the dog has. Is he shy around certain people? Food aggressive? Anxious? Most of these problems can be remedied with the help of an animal behaviorist and/or an experienced dog trainer, whom the shelter may have on staff.
And when all’s said and done, you can take your new companion home, and congratulate yourself on saving a life!