By Dr. Beth Leermakers
Choosing the Right Shelter Dog, Part 2 – Meeting Potential Dogs at the Shelter
In my last column I stressed the importance of choosing a shelter dog that’s a good match for your lifestyle. A potential adopter recently applied to adopt Oliver, my high-energy, slightly neurotic foster dog. Although he’s a terrific dog, Oliver wasn’t the right match for this family — a single mom whose young son was a little afraid of dogs. I suggested they meet Rosie — a smaller, calmer, easier dog — instead, and it was an instant love connection. Rosie has been adopted and will be treasured forever.
After you establish your must-have qualities for your new canine companion, it’s time to head to the shelter to meet a few candidates. Keep in mind that some dogs behave very differently in the stressful shelter environment. Some dogs may be more anxious and energetic after being confined to a kennel for weeks (or even months), while others are shy and withdrawn in their kennel but more outgoing when they get outside, away from the noise. I recently rescued a shy/scared young dog who was completely shut down in her kennel. She cowered in the corner of her kennel and wouldn’t interact with anyone who visited her. I asked the shelter staff to see if she’d get along with another dog I wanted to save. Lucy came to life, becoming a happy, playful dog when she spent time outside in the play yard with her new friend Ricky (names I gave them after seeing how well they got along). Don’t immediately rule out a dog based on his/her behavior in the kennel. Many dogs behave very differently in a home environment.
Be sure to ask the shelter staff and/or volunteers (who may spend more time with the dog) a lot of questions, particularly about any behaviors that concern you. Take the dog to a quieter area (outside or to a meet & greet room), if possible. Here are some steps to take when evaluating rescue dogs:
Observe the dog’s body language and how s/he interacts with people. Does the dog seem confident or nervous around people? Does she shy away from children or loud noises? Does she approach you and other strangers? What is her energy level? Is she quiet or barky? A shy dog that doesn’t come to the front of the kennel to greet you may do best in a quiet home with patient people who can give the dog time to warm up and feel comfortable. A moderate-energy, outgoing dog that approaches you with tail wagging and wants to be petted may be a good fit for a family with children.
Limit the group size during the meet and greet. Everyone in your family should meet the dog, but having too many people in a small room or play yard can be intimidating. If you bring a bunch of people, divide into smaller groups, so the dog only interacts with a couple folks at a time.
Proceed slowly when first interacting with the dog. The dog doesn’t know you yet, so let him set the pace. Sit down (if possible) and wait for him to approach you. When petting the dog for the first time, squat down so you’re at his level (don’t bend over at the waist so you’re towering over him) and turn so you’re facing the same direction he is. Some dogs feel threatened when people stare at them head-on. Pet the dog for a count of three (one, Mississippi, two Mississippi, three) and then stop. Wait to see if the dog wags his tail and seems to want you to keep petting him. If he seems uncomfortable (tail tucked, licking his lips, hackles raised, stress yawning), don’t continue petting him. Give him a few minutes to become comfortable with you.
Use dog toys and treats (if allowed) to engage the dog. If the dog cowers, shies away or avoids contact when you produce a tennis ball, put away the toy and try the treats. The dog may not be willing to take the treat from your hand right away, so place it on the ground a few feet away from you.
Ask a lot of questions. The shelter staff and volunteers know the dog best, so pick their brains. Ask them:
What’s this dog’s medical history? Does he have any known health issues? Is he heartworm negative or positive? Most, but not all, DFW-area shelters test for heartworm status, so be sure to ask. Heartworm disease can be fatal if left untreated, and the treatment is very expensive at some vet clinics.
Some shelters have sponsorships to cover heartworm treatment or have deals with (or at least can recommend) local vets who provide the treatment at a discounted rate. I’d be happy to share a few lower-cost options for heartworm treatment; just email me.
Does this dog get along with other dogs? Cats? Children? Some shelters can’t put the dogs outside in play groups with other dogs, but some do. Most shelters will allow adopters to walk a leashed dog through the cat area to observe the dog’s reaction.
Why is the dog here? Was he a stray or owner surrender? What do you know about his background? People are asked to provide information when they surrender their animals, so they may indicate whether a dog lived with other dogs, cats and/or children and is house-broken.
If the dog was owner surrendered, what reason did the previous owner give for bringing the dog to the shelter? Sometimes people lie about their reasons for surrendering their pets, but it’s worth considering the information and verifying it as much as possible. I rescued a dog that was deemed “aggressive” by the family who surrendered him. The shelter staff didn’t see any aggression toward people or other dogs, so I took a chance. Unfortunately the dog turned out to be aggressive toward both people and other dogs when I got him home.
What’s the best thing about this dog? What’s the worst thing? I love fostering the dogs that “get along with everyone.” As a foster parent, I wholeheartedly follow and recommend the “full disclosure” policy. I tell my potential adopters everything I know about the dog — the good, the bad and the ugly. They will find out soon enough anyway (during the home trial), and I don’t want the dog to be returned to me a few weeks after they finalize the adoption. Hopefully, most shelter staff/volunteers and other foster parents embrace this same philosophy.
As you meet shelter dogs, trust your gut reaction. Is the dog comfortable with you and vice versa?
Do you have a warm, fuzzy feeling when you interact, or do you have a funny feeling? Some people adopt a dog because they feel sorry for her and don’t want her to die.
While wanting to save a dog is an admirable intention, you won’t do the dog any favors if you can’t handle her and return her two days later. I was a little bit afraid of my big, high-energy young husky mix (who was on the euthanasia list at a small shelter) when I adopted him as a companion for my other dog. Fortunately the new kid settled down and turned out to be a fabulous dog. Shelter dogs are usually very grateful to their adopters, and that’s a wonderful experience.