Meet Your Match: Ten Tips for Choosing a Shelter Dog

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Originally published 10-5-2011

October is Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month! Dog adoption is a wonderful thing. There are many dogs in shelters and rescue organizations that will make wonderful lifelong companions. So how do you find the best match for you and your family?

In her book Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life, Pat Miller explains how to conduct your own behavior assessment to evaluate a prospective adoptee. Here are some of the steps to follow as you evaluate a future canine family member:

[Excerpted from Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life]

Dog being pet through a fence at a shelter
  1. Observe the dog in his kennel from a distance. Does he seem calm, friendly, and relaxed; excitable and aroused; stressed and nervous; or timid and fearful? What does he do when people or other dogs walk by?
  2. Walk up to the kennel and stand sideways at the kennel door in a neutral position. Don’t talk to him or make eye contact as you stand sideways. Does he come to the front of the kennel with a happy face and friendly wagging tail? Charge to the front of the kennel barking aggressively? Slink to the back and avoid eye contact? Stand or lie down quietly, looking at you?
  3. Turn and face him in the kennel. Make direct eye contact, stare, and don’t smile, but don’t actively threaten him. Is he happy and friendly? A little worried? Very fearful? Does he stare back and growl or bark?
  4. Kneel down and make happy talk. Is he still friendly? Less fearful? More aroused or aggressive?
  5. Have another person take him out of the kennel on-leash. Does he walk with confidence, or does he have to be coaxed through doorways and across new surfaces? Is he pulling ahead of the person walking him, or lagging far behind? As he walks past other dogs does he try to greet them happily? Aggressively? Or does he try to avoid other dogs altogether?
  6. Take the dog to a separate room—preferably a relatively quiet room with few distractions. Remove the leash, sit on a chair, and let him explore for several minutes, without trying to engage with him. Is he curious and confident? Tentative and cautious? Excited and boisterous? Does he try to leave the room?
  7. Sit on a chair in the center of the room and solicit his attention. Does he come to you when you call him or does he ignore or avoid you and continue to explore the room? Is he polite when he greets you? Does he jump all over you? Does he seem fearful when you try to interact?
  8. Put his leash back on and sit on the chair again. Stroke his back, his far side, and touch, lift, tug on (gently!), and hold various parts of his body – his tail, his ears, his feet. Does he enjoy or resist the handling? Get excited or fearful?
  9. Training. Without food at first, ask the dog to perform various behaviors that he may already know, such as sit, shake, and lie down. Use common owner body language cues (hand at your chest for a sit, pointing to or patting the floor for down, offering your own hand for shake). Then try and get him to do some behaviors he doesn’t know for a tasty food treat—sit, down (if he didn’t do them for you without treats), or maybe a spin or twirl, where you lure him in a circle to see if he’ll follow the treat. Does he know anything already? Does he seem willing to try new things? Is he fearful of your attempts to elicit new behaviors, or too stressed to even consider a treat?
  10. Playtime! If the dog you’re assessing has been outgoing and friendly, try normal play with him. If he has seemed cautious or fearful, play very gently. See if he’ll chase a ball. Does he bring it back? If he shows no interest in a ball, try a soft squeaky toy, and offer to play tug with a tug toy. If he won’t play with toys, try running away from him and see if he’ll run after you, or get down on the floor and invite him to play. If he’ll engage with you lightheartedly, he’s playing, even if he doesn’t know how to play with toys. On the other end of the scale, is he getting too excited during play? Is he biting at you, grabbing your clothes, jumping on you, perhaps even mounting you? When you stop playing, hide the toy in your hand and fold your arms in front of you. Does he stop what he’s doing or continue to interact inappropriately with you?

It’s a good idea to alert shelter or rescue staff members ahead of time that you will be doing this assessment so that they know what to expect. Remember, this assessment cannot tell you everything a dog will do in the future. It only gives you a snapshot of what the dog did on one day, in one particular environment in response to specific, limited stimuli.

You’ll find more tips on assessing, preparing for, and bringing out the best in your adoption dog in Do Over Dogs! Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life -- available in the store.