Successfully Adopting a Dog, Part 2: What to Do at the Shelter

[Updated August 24, 2018]

So you’ve made a list of the qualities you want, found a highly regarded shelter, rescue group or breeder, and are ready to start your search. Maybe you’ve found a potential customer on an organization’s website. What should we do now?

Go meet some dogs!

Here are six important observations for every dog ​​you observe. Remember: Take your time and don’t settle for a dog that doesn’t fit your lifestyle or needs.

1. Observe: If you can, take a step back and observe your adoption prospects.

Ideally, he will come forward and greet all visitors cheerfully. Is he an equal-opportunity greeter who enjoys meeting children and adults, men and women, people of different races and eccentricities? If he is in a foster home rather than a kennel, again observe and note how he interacts with anyone present.

Worries: If he greets certain people happily but is troubled by others, he may need a lot of behavioral work to help him accept these types of people. If he barks and lunges at passing humans or dogs, he may often be reactive or aggressive, or he may simply be barrier reactive. This behavior may or may not continue when he is no longer kenneled. If so, you’re on to a major behavior change effort.

If he moves to the back of the kennel and avoids contact with humans, he may become fearful and/or under-socialized. You cannot eliminate fear with love alone. A fearful dog will require a lot of management and behavioral changes to feel comfortable and safe (not a fear-based bite risk). Again, this could just be a reaction to a stressful kennel environment, or it could be a larger behavioral issue. When some dogs are removed from their kennels and brought to a more normal environment (such as a familiar room), they behave like completely different dogs.

2. Engage: Assuming you’re satisfied with his reactions to others, approach the kennel.

Will he come over and say hello to you? Does he remain engaged and friendly when approached by other members of your family? Do you like what you see? If so, please continue.

Worries: He needs to respond well to all family members. A dog that is fearful or reacts negatively to one or more family members can be a source of conflict and is not a good choice.

3. Meet: Now is the time to meet him in a different, less stressful environment.

Hopefully the shelter or rescue has a quiet room or outside fenced area where you can spend familiar time with the dog away from the chaos of the kennel. Watch as a staff member or volunteer puts him on a leash and carries him out of the kennel. Will he avoid them and/or their touch? Did they have trouble restraining him?

Worries: Feeling uncomfortable or avoiding close human contact may indicate a lack of social interaction or abuse. This may require moderate to significant behavioral work.

4. Interaction: Spend time with your dog, preferably in a separate room or fenced area.

Give him some time to sniff and explore the room, and don’t try to attract him in any way at first. After he explores the room, will he turn his attention to you and the rest of your family? Are his interactions with you and other family members appropriate? Does he play with toys? What kind of training does he seem to have received? (Most dogs with some training will respond to at least the “sit” cue.) Does he calm down after you play with him? Or stay excited? Does he open his mouth (put his teeth on human skin)?

Think about how his behavior will play out with your family. Is he too energetic for your child? Is he pulling so hard that they (or you!) can’t walk him safely? Is your family afraid of him? On the other hand, isn’t he interested in you? Is he running away or hiding?

Worries: The dog you adopt must be an integral part of your family. If you have children, dogs will definitely like smaller humans and show this in their interactions with the family. “Tolerate” is not good enough. If he behaves very inappropriately, or threatens the safety of family members, he will become a source of tension and will most likely end up being separated from the family for an extended period of time, or may be returned to an adoption agency.

5. Ask: The shelter/rescue staff may have additional information that has not yet been shared.

Was a behavioral assessment conducted? (Remember to take appraisal information with a grain of salt; see “Adoption Options” below.) Can you see the owner questionnaire? Records of behavior of staff and volunteers? Medical records? More information is always better.

6. Reflect and discuss: Assuming everything is going well so far, have a family discussion (or a mental discussion with yourself).

There are many dogs that need homes. If the person isn’t a good fit, someone else will be. Be willing to wait. On the other hand, if this is the dog for you, then full steam ahead! Be prepared to comply with any additional adoption requirements the organization may have (filling out an application, landlord inspection, meeting your current pets, etc.) and then get ready for a lifetime of joy and fun with your new family member.

shelter dog

Adoption options: Progress isn’t perfect

In my 40+ years working professionally with animals, adopting a dog has never been easier. The twenty years I worked in animal shelters (1976-1996) were before the advent of the so-called “no-kill movement.” In those days, the art of behaviorally assessing shelter dogs was just becoming the norm. We try to only adopt dogs that are likely to make successful companions and do well in society. We then trust our adoption counselors to help make a good match, with the goal of placing each dog in a lifelong loving home where both dog and person are a perfect fit for each other’s needs. Of course, we’re not perfect, but we try. Even so, finding the right dog isn’t always easy for potential adopters.

Two major changes in the past 20 years may make things more difficult. First, well-intentioned, dedicated no-kill animal lovers have made it their admirable mission to reduce the number of dogs and cats euthanized in shelters across the United States. Their efforts, coupled with ongoing sterilization and education programs and the shelter’s hard work over the years, were not without results; the number of euthanasias dropped significantly. In the 1980s, an estimated 18-20 million dogs and cats were euthanized in shelters; today the estimate is two to three million. There is no doubt that this is good news.

But hoarders—individuals and rescue groups who keep far more animals than they can care for—have also grown exponentially. Today, many dogs are “rescued” from shelters—many of which are eager to increase their live release numbers—only to be “rescued” from hoarders and forced to suffer in shelters from overcrowding, poor sanitation, The pain of disease, malnutrition and death. The hand of their potential savior. Some so-called “no-kill” shelters have themselves become institutional hoarders.

Additionally, in pursuit of better numbers, a large portion of non-hoarding adoption sources are placing poorly socialized dogs, dogs with other behavioral issues, and even dogs with a known history of aggression. (A recent example: A Virginia rescue group adopted a dog with a history of aggression from a family that included a 90-year-old grandmother. The dog killed the grandmother on her first day in her new home Grandma.) Whether hoarders or non-hoarders, people often find themselves facing serious health and/or behavioral challenges with their new canine companions.

To make matters worse, several recent studies suggest that shelter behavioral assessments are not as useful as we have long thought. Research shows that not only are there many “false positives” – dogs exhibiting undesirable behaviors in assessments but not in the home environment, meaning they may be euthanized unnecessarily – but there are also many “false negatives” ” — Dogs that don’t exhibit behaviors during assessments later show up at home, meaning adopters may be making false assurances about their new dog’s behavior.As a result, some organizations have stopped any assessments and lowered or eliminated adoption screening criteria, recalling the question “Do you want him? Lower your adoption fee.”
He’s yours”—this was standard practice when I started working in shelters.

Adopting a Dog: An Overview

1. Think carefully beforehand about the qualities you and your family want in your new dog. Don’t let yourself be swayed by a cute face if the dog behind it doesn’t meet at least most of the criteria you want.

2. Take your time. There are many dogs looking for their forever families. You might as well stick with someone who will perform well in your home.

3. If you are not confident in your ability to make good choices, consider utilizing the services of a training/behavioral professional. Many trainers know that dogs that may have belonged to previous clients need new homes for a variety of sad reasons (divorce, illness, financial difficulties, etc.).

By Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, Fairplay, MD sidjitraining editor. Miller is also the author of numerous books on positive training. Her latest work is, Beware of Dogs: Positive Solutions for Dog Aggression.