Happy Tails: Tips for seeking a shelter dog

If you have been following this column lately — something for which I would be grateful — you know that, with one recent exception, I’ve been stuck on a theme.

Happy Tails

Nancy Carlson has an enduring interest in the bond between humans and animals.

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The inspiration came from the summer edition of BARK magazine. The first of the series dealt with the health benefits that come with dog ownership, provided you have a relationship with the dog. The next column, inspired by same edition, discussed the idea that building a relationship with a dog is a heck of a lot easier if you happen to like each other, and that is not always a given.

A little thought and research into the kind of dog you’d like to live with can enhance the odds that you will find such a pooch. And to that end, I went into some detail about the advantage of considering a purebred dog from a reliable breeder.

However, many of you choose to rescue a dog from the shelter or from a rescue group, which is to your credit and I hope you give yourself a pat on the back for such a noble effort. The problem, of course, is that not all dogs in rescue are created equal, and very often there is little or no information about the animal’s background or breeding, which can be huge factors when it comes to dog behavior. So I am going to reflect here on the rest of the BARK article, which deals with how to choose a rescue dog.

I will preface this discussion by saying that many, many people just go to a shelter without asking the advice from the likes of me, and come home with really wonderful dogs. I guess that’s because there are a lot of wonderful dogs out there. But there are also some that are not so wonderful, and many that may not be able to live up to your expectations. So here’s some things to think about as you head for the shelter.

I can tell you from personal experience that it is a lot of fun to walk a dog that is so cute/beautiful/striking/quirky looking that people actually stop you to take his picture. But appearance is not a good basis for choosing a dog. You’ll want to think about how large a dog you’re comfortable with and how much fur you’re willing to vacuum, but that’s about all the considerations you should give to the looks department. Even if the dog at the shelter is a dead ringer for the dearly departed Poochie of your childhood, appearance may well be all the two have in common. So don’t go by that alone.

It’s common practice these days for shelters to do temperament assessments with dogs shortly after they arrive. The assessments are done on already stressed out dogs who just landed on what for them must seem like a whole new planet. Both research and anecdotal evidence urge us not to take the results as the gospel truth on how a dog will behave in your home. But they do tend to have some validity in predicting friendliness and fearfulness in dogs, so ask to see the evaluation and discuss it with shelter staff.

You can do your own mini assessment, and the BARK article gives some strategies for doing that:

Try to get the dog to play with you — maybe with a ball or squeaky toy. A playful dog has not been shut down by fear or stress. You may be able to transform a fearful or stressed dog into a more confident one, but usually that takes a lot of time, patience and effort, and you may not want to sign up for that.

It’s also encouraging if the dog welcomes touch. Initially the dog may be too excited to be interested, but as you spend time getting familiar with each other — which might be over the course of several visits — hopefully the dog will become calm enough to welcome an ear or chin rub, maybe even a belly tickle.

Of course, if the dog never does settle down, you’ll want to take that into account. Shelters, by nature, are anxiety-producing in dogs, and it’s completely understandable if the potential pooch charges into the visiting area and bounces off the walls. But at some point they should get around to keeping all four paws on the ground and noticing that you are there.

Along with that, BARK advises paying close attention to whether the dog engages with you, if not immediately, at least eventually. How they do that is an individual matter, but if they show no interest in you at all, it’s going to be hard work trying to forge a friendship.

The article also suggests trying to establish how trainable a dog is before adopting. That sounds like a good idea, but personally I wouldn’t make it a deal breaker. Shelters are just too stressful and stimulating for many dogs to be able to focus. Plus, a lot of shelter dogs are completely clueless that human words even have meaning, and the word “sit” or even their name may be a foreign language to them. However, I would encourage you to bring good treats and reward the dog for something as simple as looking at you.

Some dogs may not be motivated by food, but 99 percent of them are, and with treats he’ll begin to associate you with good things to come. Of course, check with shelter staff in case the dog has any food allergies, which is another thing to take into account. Hypoallergenic foods are generally more expensive than regular dog food.

Drop a book or some other heavy object a few feet away from the dog. Of course, any dog is going to be startled at sudden, unexpected sounds, but if the fearfulness continues beyond a minute, you’ll want to think about that. Go ahead and bring the dog home if you wish, but know you may find it hiding in the closet every time you try to vacuum.

Speaking of taking the dog home, many shelters are allowing “slumber parties” for potential adopters and adoptees to spend time in the home they will be sharing to determine if they’re compatible. You might want to take advantage of that. You will still have a dog trying to cope with a whole new experience of sights, sounds and smells, but the visit is at least a glimpse into how you will manage with each other, and also gives you insights about how the dog will get along with any other pets you have.

Lastly, BARK advises, don’t pick a dog out of pity. Pity is not a good emotion on which to build a relationship. And besides, almost all dogs in shelters get adopted by somebody. It doesn’t have to be you. Don’t rush. Remember, this is more like a marriage than a casual friendship. Take at least a day to think about it. Many shelters will hold a dog for 24 hours for a nominal fee to allow you time to mull over the idea.

Get a dog from a breeder or from a shelter, but don’t get one from a pet shop. Too often their suppliers are puppy mills or irresponsible breeders who want profit more than healthy puppies. The sooner we all refuse to support such businesses, the sooner we can put a stop to cruel and neglectful practices.

There are remarkably few young puppies available at shelters, but if you want one and they’re available, take note of the way they play with one another. I have come to believe that how a dog gets along with other dogs is nearly as important as how he gets along with people. Think hard before picking a pup who won’t play with the others, or one who plays rough and doesn’t stop when his littermate squeals in pain.

Just a few thoughts as you seek your forever furry friend. Happy hunting!


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