Chloe was a shelter dog.
So was Benji:
In fact, we have three shelter dogs. All three are the most wonderful creatures I’ve ever met and bring my family joy everyday.
There is a lot of stigma around shelter dogs. This stigma deserves a deep dive because it is largely unfair. Accidents can and do happen, but a basic understanding of the shelter environment and dog behavior can reduce this possibility.
This topic deserves a much deeper dive that I plan to explore further. For now, here are five tips for adopting a shelter dog that I’ve learned from my own experiences adopting dogs and volunteering at several shelters.
Spend as much time as possible with the dog before adopting.
This is a big topic and I could write several posts about it. Whenever someone asks me about adopting a dog this is what I advise them to do. In fact, I think becoming a volunteer at the shelter first is a wonderful way of familiarizing yourself with the dogs while also helping out. There are several reasons why this is such an important tip.
First, the more time you spend with a dog the more familiar you are with its behavioral tendencies. Taking a dog home without spending much time with it is setting you and your family up for failure. Shelter dogs often have mysterious pasts that can and will reveal itself through habits and behaviors over time.
More important than the dog’s past is the dog’s personality. Our Chloe is a couch potato. Once, on a long walk, she decided she wasn’t going to walk anymore and I had to carry her home. Chloe would be ideal as a family dog for a busy family. She would not be ideal for a runner. These are things you’ll learn as you spend time with the dog.
Additionally, the more time you spend with the dog the more they get to know and trust you. This is just as important as you learning about the dog. A dog that trusts you is a dog that can be left at home alone and won’t destroy the house. It’s also a dog who is interested in your training.
Pick the right shelter.
The shelter is more important than the dog. That might strike you as counter-intuitive but I assure you that it’s true. Dogs, like humans, become products of their environments. Neglected dogs, left to wallow in their mess without human interaction, develop bad habits that are hard to break at home.
The number of volunteers at a shelter will tell you a lot about the shelter itself. If there are a lot of volunteers that rave about the work the shelter is doing then you are safe to assume the shelter is doing great work and caring for their animals.
A shelter that struggles to retain volunteers and/or staff that has terrible attitudes also tells you a lot about the work being done.
Also, if your application gets rejected by a shelter don’t be discouraged. The shelter is only doing its best to find the right family for it’s dogs. Please keep trying.
Don’t worry about the breed, focus on train-ability.
There is a lot of poor information out on the internet about the breeds to look for or avoid when adopting. I strongly caution you to disregard any prior bias against or preference for breeds. Any dog in a shelter is unlikely to be a purebred and the shelter’s breed designation is going to be mostly guesswork based on the dog’s appearance.
For example, we got a genetic test done for our Husky mix Denver. It came back showing that he was only 25% Husky! His other 75% was a mix of other breeds.
The shelter thought that Benji was part Basset Hound and part German Shepherd. His DNA test came back showing that he didn’t have any Basset nor GSD at all! He’s actually a big mutt with Corgi, Golden Retriever, Poodle, Pit Bull, and Boxer in his ancestry.
So, if “breed” tells us so little about a dog, what can we use to decide on which dog to adopt?
We should really focus on train-ability. This comes into play when we spend time with the dog (see above). Some major things to look for are:
- Eye contact. This is big. Does the dog tune into you? Or are you just an anchor on a leash to them? That isn’t to say that dogs that don’t give eye contact are untrainable. Only that dogs that tune in to you and your body language are interested in what you want them to do.
- How does the dog take treats from your hand? Like a maniac, with almost enough force to hurt you? Do they jump all over you demanding treats? Or do they wait patiently for you to put the treat in their mouth?
- How reactive is the dog to other stimuli (such as other dogs in the shelter)? Are they lunging at other cages/ people? Especially when you’re a new adopter, leash reactivity is the number 1 issue families run into. Reactivity will give you an idea about how easy it is to get your dogs attention when there are other things around that it would rather focus on.
That is a not-at-all comprehensive list of qualities that indicate a dog’s train-ability. If you spend a couple of hours with a dog before adopting it you will have a good idea what that dog is like. If you have a shelter dog that is struggling with confidence, check out this post to help build her confidence.
Make sure the dog you pick fits with your lifestyle.
This one is going to be pretty obvious, but it’s important that you pick a dog whose habits and behaviors fit with the lifestyle you want to live OR that you have enough time to teach the dog what acceptable behaviors are.
Do you want a running or jogging companion? Don’t pick a couch potato, or you’ll end up carrying your dog home like I did with Chloe. Do you want a couch potato? Don’t pick a young, active, easily excited dog with a lot of drive.
Do you live in an apartment building? Be aware of any reactivity a dog may display- your neighbors may end up hating you. Similarly, separation anxiety can be a real problem in an apartment building.
Pick out a vet and trainer before you bring the dog home.
Most shelters work hard to prevent illness but the environment easily lends itself to becoming a bacterial petri dish. My sister-in-law adopted a beautiful dog named Bailey who came down with terrible kennel cough just days after coming home. It’s important to have a vet lined up so that if your dog does become sick you aren’t scrambling to find one that can see your sick dog asap.
Also, review trainers and training methods before you bring your dog home. Even if you’ve had dogs before it’s important to line up a trainer. Dogs are like humans in that they are socially flexible and can exhibit an extraordinary range of behaviors. You are likely to have a dog that does something you’ve never seen before, especially if you adopt it from a shelter.
That’s about it for my quick tips. I’ll definitely be writing more about this topic in the future!