Choosing a shelter puppy

When looking at shelter puppies, you’ll likely have little more to go on than age (sometimes estimated), breed or breed mix (often estimated), and maybe some notes on how they’re doing at the shelter. And that’s it.

So how do you choose a puppy?

Basic considerations

Size matters. It helps to have some idea of a pup’s background (knowing there’s Lab in there somewhere usually means a larger dog). If a puppy’s heritage is a complete mystery, look at her feet: large paws mean a large adult dog, small paws mean a smaller one.

Ask what kind of adult dog you want. Do you want a jogging companion, someone to walk or hike with, a dog who’s good with kids, a therapy dog? If you go in with a clear idea of what you want, it’s easier to select the right puppy. (Take DogTime’s Matchup to find the right dog.)

Be aware you’re not always going to get good answers. Shelters that are understaffed or focus more on animal control than on adoption may know very little about the dogs. And an employee’s desire to save the dogs in her care may mean you don’t always get the full story. Regardless, ask as many questions as you can.

Questions worth asking

  • Does the puppy have any known medical issues? Parasites such as worms are completely normal and treatable in puppies, so don’t worry about those. Look for anything that could mean big vet bills in your future, such as hip or other joint problems.
  • What’s been the puppy’s behavior while at the shelter –comfortable, confident, sad, aggressive, scared, depressed, accepting? Keep in mind that it’s normal for puppies to be nervous their first few days at a shelter.
  • How has she interacted with shelter personnel? What’s the pup’s best quality? What’s the pups’s worst quality? Questions that get at specifics may get a more useful response than, “Is this a nice puppy?”
  • Is her mother here? Spending some time with a pup’s mother can give you insights into the type of dog she’ll become.

Assess your puppy’s behavior

Even if the shelter doesn’t have much information to offer, you can find out a lot about a puppy by spending some time with her and doing a behavior evaluation, also known as temperament testing.

Major caveat: these evaluations are an inexact science, especially in puppies. The results can change from week to week, and they often have more to do with the puppy’s past experiences than her basic personality. For instance, a pup who’s been handled often will submit to it, whereas one who’s been isolated won’t. And puppies are very pliable–there’s still time to mold her personality with positive training and socialization. Still, a behavior assessment test can give you a general idea of what you’re working with.

For the best results, do the test in a place that’s unfamiliar to the pup–a yard or room at the shelter–instead of her kennel.

Here’s how to evaluate a puppy:

1. Cradle the puppy in your arms, belly up in the same way you would hold a human infant, and hold her there for about half a minute.
Does the puppy quickly relax?
If so, she’s either easygoing or used to being handled–both good things.

Does she struggle the entire time?
This can be the sign of a strong-willed pup who’d do best with an experienced owner. However, it can also simply mean she’s never been handled before and will need training to get comfortable with it.

Does she look away from you or pee?
Looking away means she’s a bit timid; peeing means she’s very timid.

2. Walk away and call the puppy to follow, making encouraging hand movements.

Does the puppy follow you with her tail up?
This means she likes human company. Her focus on people may also make her easier to train. But her sociability also means she needs to be around people. So if your dog will be spending a lot of time alone, this isn’t the pup for you.

Does the puppy take her time getting to you, stopping to explore and wander around?
This is a sign of confidence and independence. This pup may need an owner who can be a good leader. This doesn’t mean being harsh or abusive, just firm and consistent.

Does she cringe, cower, freeze, or stay away from you?
This is a fearful puppy who will need lots of training and attention to be comfortable and safe around people.

Does she follow along and bite at your feet?
It’s a herding pup! Not a bad thing, but she’ll have to be taught not to nip and herd you or your kids.

3. When the puppy is a few feet away from you, clap your hands.

Does she come right up to you, and possibly start pawing, jumping up, or licking you?
This is a normal, well-adjusted puppy.

Does she come over with her tail up and try to bite your hands or clothing?
She’s assertive and forward, meaning she needs an owner who can hold her ground with training and house rules. Note that unless the mouthing is extreme, this isn’t a warning sign of a dog who will bite as an adult. Mouthing and nipping is standard puppy behavior, especially if they haven’t had any training.

Does she stay where she is or walk away?
Then she’s an independent spirit. Bad if you want a clingy “Velcro dog,” good if you like a pup who won’t fall to pieces when you walk out the door. Independent dogs can be more of a challenge to train.

Does she hesitate before coming, or stay away completely?
If she hesitates, she’s shy. If she keeps her distance completely, she’s very shy.

4. Using your fingers, squeeze between the toes of a front foot and ever so gradually increase the pressure. Stop when the puppy shows discomfort.

Does she quickly cry uncle?
She’s sensitive, and will probably be easier to train. On the other hand, sensitive pups aren’t a good match if you have young kids.

5. When the puppy isn’t looking at you or facing you, make a loud noise–drop a metal food bowl on linoleum, for instance. It’s perfectly normal for a pup to startle; the key is how long it takes her to recover and walk up to you or up to the bowl to investigate.

Does the puppy go to investigate the bowl or come over to you fairly quickly?
This is a normal, resilient pup–she gets an A+.

Does the puppy bark viciously and have trouble calming down?
This could signal a dog who turns aggressive when startled–not a good sign.

Does the puppy get so scared she pees, and/or does she cower and not go to investigate the bowl or come up to you?
This is a fearful pup.

6. Sit the puppy in front of you and stroke her all over while keeping your head low and close enough to for the puppy to lick.

Does the puppy accept the petting and maybe lick your face?
This is a normal, well-balanced, social puppy.

Does she try to get away, freeze, growl, mouth at you a lot, or does she look away and try to ignore you?
The pup could be independent, assertive, or fearful–all of which means she needs training and a more experienced owner. It could also mean the pup just isn’t used to handling. Offer a food treat to see if you can get her to relax. If she takes it and calms down a bit, that’s a good sign that she’s simply not used to the human touch, but can learn to enjoy it.

Note: If a pup has an extreme response to any of these exercises, it may just be that this is her first time being petted, startled with a loud noise, etc. You can always try again–offer some treats and praise, and try to make it fun. If the pup does much better the second time around, it’s a good sign that lack of experience, not personality, caused the reaction.

Red flags

Extreme behavior on either end–puppies who are either very timid or very assertive. These pups aren’t doomed to be bad dogs, but they’ll need an experienced owner and lots of extra training and attention. Most folks do best with a middle-of-the-road puppy.