By choosing the right shelter dog for you and your family, you are doing yourself a huge favor because of the joy and warmth it will bring to your home. You are also doing the dog a huge favor by giving him a second chance in life. The operative words, however, are the right dog – because mismatches sometimes occur, resulting in disappointment all around. There are a number of different factors to bear in mind when adopting a shelter dog into your family circle to (hopefully) become everyone’s best friend. I am listing some of the more important considerations below, in no particular order, and will make brief comments about each.
While most people prefer to adopt a puppy, or at least a younger dog, there are plenty of middle-aged or older dogs who are really in need of a home and many are really sweet dogs who find themselves in hard times for no fault of their own. You shouldn’t dismiss rescuing one of these poor souls on the basis of age because the rewards can be great. Also note that young puppies are always a work in progress whereas with older dogs what you see is what you get.
Breed or Mixed Breed?
There are not so many pure bred dogs in shelters, but there are some. With purebreds, you can simply refer to a breed standard to learn about aspects of their personality, eventual size, and any medical problems that may afflict them. Websites like this one – Petwave.com – can be very helpful here. Purebreds are, in a manner of speaking, a known quantity. Mixed breed dogs, like my own, are a mixed bag but in general are somewhat healthier and are often longer lived than many purebreds.
Male or Female?
Truth be known, there is not a lot of difference behaviorally between a neutered male and neutered female dog. However, a neutered dog is not an “it” and some retain aspects of their sex-typical behavior. This doesn’t usually translate into much trouble for future owners, but if adopting more than one dog, note that males and females often get on better than same sex pairs.
Whatever people say, size does matter. Smaller dogs are much less expensive to keep in terms of their food requirements and medications. The extra cost of keeping a large-sized dog may not be a big deal for some folk – but when the food bill comes in at around $70 per month with heartworm treatment an extra $50 per month (instead of $60 for the two) that may be an important factor affecting your decision.
It may seem self-evident but some of the shorter-haired breeds are easier keepers grooming-wisethan the oh-so-elegant medium or long-haired dogs. Some woolly-coated dogs need daily grooming to keep their coats looking good as well as to minimize shedding. For some people this may not be an issue but for others the daily chore of grooming may be something of a tipping point.
In one of my books, I described dogs as either a) couch potatoes with very low exercise requirements, b) requiring moderate exercise and c) a third group – who I referred to as the runners – who require a whole lot of exercise to keep them happy and livable. You can see how a potential owner’s lifestyle factors in here. If you are a relatively sedentary person or live in a small apartment, a large breed dog might be best for you because their exercise requirements are usually fairly low. If you are an outdoorsy type who lives in the country and you love hiking and running (plus good company) then a runner might work well for you. If the breed of the dog is known then so are exercise requirements. For mixed breed dogs the answer to the question about their exercise requirements is not always clear but typically those dogs with higher energy in the shelter, the ones that jump and bark a lot, require more exercise. Consider this aspect carefully when selecting a dog for your home.
The ideal dog is friendly with all other dogs and people as well as being totally accepting of and tolerant around children. But just because a dog has an issue with other dogs or takes exception when the UPS man comes knocking doesn’t mean his behavioral issues are necessarily a show stopper. Such problems can be easily managed and would likely diminish with the right type of owner – one who sets clear limits of acceptable behavior. In general, dogs tend to fall into two camps of being either somewhat assertive or, at the other end of the spectrum, somewhat shy and retiring. Of course there are all shades of gray in between these two extremes. More assertive dogs do need no nonsense owners who can be good dog parents. More shy retiring dogs need almost zero rules and kid glove treatment. Either extreme can be brought back to the center with appropriate handling and management.
Interaction with other pets
If you have other pets in the home it’s as well to consider how the addition of a newcomer is likely to work out. Questions you need to ask yourself are is the resident dog relatively tolerant? Is the potential adoptee likely to be both social and accepting? If so, the adoption may work out well. Red flags would be an insanely territorial resident dog or a shelter dog with known issues with others of his kind. Likewise, the interaction of an incoming dog with a resident cat must be carefully considered. Some dogs get along well with cats, other do not. This factor alone might be a determining one for some potential adopters.
Whether a dog you might want to adopt is large or small, short-coated or shaggy, fully grown or a pup, is easy to see – it’s factoring that information into your decision making that’s important. What is trickier is determining a dog’s temperament and figuring out how that will impact your relationship or lifestyle. In other words, how compatible with you and yours the dog may be. In order to assess a dog’s personality, it is important to explore three matters: First, what was the reason (if known) that the dog was brought to the shelter in the first place. Bear in mind that not all people leaving dogs at shelters tell the whole story or even the truth. Second, ask the shelter staff how that dog interacts with them and other dogs as the staff are often experienced and knowledgeable about dog behavior. Finally, take the dog out of the shelter environment into a neutral area where you will interact with him or her checking out things like leash walking, petting, mutual bonding, interaction with other dogs and people and, perhaps, even engaging some temperament testing along with a knowledgeable individual. Will that dog fit in well with your family and match their hopes and aspirations? While the ultimate answer as to whether an adoption is successful can only be assessed down the road, considering the aforementioned factors will prevent a well-meaning adopter from making an elementary mistake. Certainly, impulse buying is a really bad idea when it comes to a canine companion who could be – and should be – a close family member for years to come. Take time, consider the facts, and involve others in your decision making.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.