Choosing a Shelter Dog

Hopefully by the time you get to the shelter you will have investigated possible breeds, decided if a male or female would be better, determined whether your chosen breed will be compatible with existing dogs in your home, and examined exactly why you want a dog, and if you can meet your chosen dog’s needs etc.

If you are a bit unsure of what to expect or look for, it is a good idea to take along a behaviourist to help you make the right choice; someone who is experienced in dog behaviour and who will be able to assist you in your selection process.

You are now at the shelter and the range of dogs available for adoption is huge – where do you go from here?

Bearing in mind the choice you have narrowed yourself down too, ask the shelter personnel to take you to, or give you the numbers where these types of dogs are being housed. This will help you to walk on past all the hopeful faces that are saying ‘please take me home’ as quickly as possible! It would be awesome to be able to help them all but suitability to your lifestyle is vital.

Some questions for you to ask:

Why is the dog in the shelter? If the dog has been found wandering the odds are that no information will be available, but if the dog has been handed in, you can find out whether or not it was a behaviour problem that ended it up there, or whether the owner has relocated, downsized etc. The majority of behaviour problems are treatable, but forewarned is forearmed.

Is this the first time the dog has been in this shelter? If the dog has been returned, you need to persevere and find out why and how many times.

How long has the dog been in the shelter? Dogs that have been in a shelter for a long period of time sometimes take longer to settle into their new homes. From a dog’s perspective (I imagine), months or years of loud noises, runs being cleaned out, dogs barking on all sides etc, can be a very stressful situation. This does not mean that the dog is not suitable, just that you may have to take a bit of extra time and effort to help the dog settle into your home.

Does the dog have any health issues? Veterinary assistance can be expensive, so if there are medical concerns, find out from you own vet what you would be looking at on a monthly basis and what their thoughts are on the medical concern.

Does the staff know if the dog gets on with children, other dogs, cats etc? If they don’t know and you have kids, other dogs, cats, then further investigation has to be done on seeing their reaction with these, before you go further.

Have the staff noticed any fear behaviour with the dog? i.e. is the dog fearful of loud noises, storms etc. The majority of noise fear behaviour can be dealt with, but it does take time and patience on the part of the owner to help the dog get over this and there can never be a 100% guarantee. The dog may learn to cope with the fear, but if this is a dog that is going to be left alone during the day when the owner is out, having a fear of storms or loud noises would be a distinct disadvantage.

Has the dog always been kept in a run with other dogs? If this is the case, find out from the shelter if the dog copes when alone, especially if it is going to be an ‘only’ dog in your own home.

Assessment – with dog in the run:

There are some great websites that tell you exactly how to assess a shelter dog, but some quick guidelines for doing this yourself are:

Stand a bit away from the run and just observe the dog as it watches people walking by.

Is the dog sitting and watching? If so, chances are that this dog is laid back.

If it does not approach the front of run when people come by, or even goes to the back of the run – this dog has some possible issues. It could be a dog that has been in the shelter due to loss of a beloved owner or it could have a fear of people and remembering that the majority of aggression comes from fear, you could be looking at a possible reactive dog.

This could also be an indication that the dog is not feeling great. Ask if it has just been sterilized, or perhaps has been ill.

Has the dog gone to the back of the run to hide, is it panting excessively, is it shivering etc? These are clear indications of an under-socialised/fearful dog and this dog will require a lot of hard work and rehabilitation.

Is the dog jumping and barking and performing? It could well be that he is just over excited to see people, but definite training will be required to calm him down and show him how to greet humans.

Is the dog pacing up and down and perhaps whining? This could be an indication that this dog is stressed and not coping with his surroundings.

Does the dog lunge at the door and bark, spin, jump up against the walls etc when people walk by? In a case like this, see what the dog’s reaction is when people move past. If it calms down again, this is probably stress related, but if the dog continues doing it, he may be totally OTT.

Does the dog stand with a stiff body and perhaps the hair standing up on back of neck? Does the dog growl and move away? This is an indication that this dog could be reactive, even though the reactivity comes from fear. This is not your responsibility to ‘fix’. Dogs like this need to receive some rehab work from the shelter before being put up for adoption.

Is the dog friendly through the wire – play bow, dancing around, wagging its tail, licking your hand? Good choice, happy friendly dog.

Assessment out of the run:

Ask the shelter staff to take the dog to either a quiet area for you to get better acquainted, or to a room. Don’t be too concerned if the dog is jumping, pulling and acting like an idiot on lead. Many shelter dogs do this due to stress and the excitement of getting out of the run.

See if you can get the dogs attention once you have arrived at the room or area. If outside, the first few minutes may be taken up by sniffing and smelling (the dog of course!) and then after that, call the dog, show it a tasty treat (make sure you have asked the shelter if you can give treats) and offer to dog with an open palm. Reason for the open palm is that a dog in a stressful situation may snatch at food. If you get dogs attention and if he sniffs at the food then you are off to a great start. Many dogs that are really stressed will not accept food, so don’t be too concerned. If the dog refuses food initially and you then try again a few minutes later and the dog takes the food or sniffs it, the dog is starting to relax and this is a positive sign.

Once the dog gets used to you, see if he will accept a gentle pat. Don’t do it on the dogs head, rather under the chin, on the chest or on the neck. Many dogs view something touching them from above as a threat. If the dog will not allow you to touch it after a few minutes and growls, freezes or moves away – don’t go further – this is a dog that is not fond of people and you may end up with problems.

Ask the shelter assistant if you can walk a little with the dog on lead. The dog may jump up or pull, but this is not necessarily a sign that the dog is out of control. This behaviour can be changed – just make sure that the dog is not too strong for you to hold.

See if the dog lunges towards other dogs in runs and people. It could be that the dog has a problem with both dogs and people and unless you are going to do some serious training, look at another dog.

Does the dog absolutely freeze and refuse to move an inch? It could just be that the dog has never been on lead before and does not know what to do. This can be changed and the dog taught how to handle a lead, but chances are you are looking at a fearful dog and this will take work. If the dog seems to change character and become reactive while in this position, rather look at another dog. This situation also needs to be addressed by the shelter.

Ask questions of the staff all the time this is happening i.e. does the dog normally act like this when taken out for exercise etc.

Even if all seems to go fine and you are happy to start the adoption process, really ask yourself if this is the dog for you and if something feels ‘not quite right’ rather look further before making your final choice. You are taking on a dog for life and if it does not feel right at the beginning, the chances are that it will never be right – the last thing either you or the dog need, is for it to be returned to the shelter.

If you are not sure that some of the behaviours the dog is showing can be sorted out, rather get hold of a behaviourist who can come and assess the dog for you.

- By Scotty Valadao – Canine Behaviour Consultant (ABC of SA)– TTouch Practitioner -
​Courtesy - your one stop website for all things dog

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