Choosing a shelter dog

Saving a dog from a shelter is one of the most soul-satisfying things a dog lover can do. But choosing the right one can be tough. Shelters are stressful places to visit, with lots of dogs jammed into small, harshly lit, noisy spaces. The surroundings can make dogs depressed, anxious, even manic, so it’s often hard to know what they’re really like.

Still, it’s possible — and so rewarding — to find your new best friend in one of those cages. Here’s how to go about it.

Ask questions

Keep in mind that you won’t always get good answers. Shelters that focus more on animal control than adoption may know very little about the dogs. And an employee who hopes to save a dog who’s tugging on her heartstrings may not give you the full story.

Still, these are questions worth asking.

  • Why is the dog here? A stray is an unknown, but if a dog was given up, you’ll want to know why. It may have nothing to do with the dog — a move, a divorce, an allergy — or it may be a behavior problem. Behavior problems are often treatable, but it’s good to know about them up front.
  • Does the dog have any known medical issues? It’s better to know in advance if you’ll be facing large vet bills.
  • What’s the best thing about this dog? What’s the worst thing about this dog? You’ll learn more than if you simply ask if a dog is nice or well behaved.
  • Has the dog been temperament tested? Temperament tests try to gauge a dog’s personality and catch red flags such as object guarding and aggression. But take the results with a grain of salt: they’re more a snapshot of a dog’s behavior at the moment of the test than a lifetime guarantee.

Assess the dogs

Even if the shelter doesn’t have much information to offer, try to spend as much time as possible with any dog you’re interested in.

1. Stand a few feet away and watch how the dog reacts to other people

Is the dog sitting quietly and watching the world?

Chances are you’ve found a calm dog.

Does he fail to react much, even when people approach?

This could signal a dog who isn’t people-friendly and may be aggressive. However, it could also mean he isn’t feeling well. So if the dog seems too quiet, ask if he’s sick or recovering from surgery.

Is he pacing and whining?

Shelters are stressful places for dogs, and this dog is worried. He may take a while to relax if you bring him home.

Is he jumping and barking?

He’s probably just excited to see people — a good signbut you’ll need to do some training to teach him to chill out.

Does he lunge at the door, bark his head off, spin, and chase people’s feet as they walk by?

He may be aggressive, but he may also simply be feeling the stress of shelter life. If he calms down quickly after people pass, stress is the likely culprit.

Does he hang at the back of the kennel?

Worst case, the dog is scared of people. Fearful dogs take a lot of training and can bite or snap when they feel threatened. However, the dog could also be sick or depressed. Ask some questions of the shelter staff: Did the dog’s owner die? Has he been in the shelter a long time? If so, he may just be sad, and not unfriendly.

2. Walk up to the door of the kennel

Does he freeze in place, growl, move away from you, or does the hair on his back stand up?

If so, keep looking. These are all warning signs of an unfriendly dog.

Does he lick your hand, jump up, dance around, bow down with his rump in the air, show a relaxed, open mouth with a lolling tongue?

Great, these are all friendly, playful gestures.

3. Take the dog to a quiet room or yard

Can you get the dog to pay attention to you?

Just like us, dogs prefer some people over others. And shelters are distracting places. But if you can get his attention after a few minutes, that’s a good sign that the two of you click.

Is the dog comfortable with a gentle pat?

If he accepts it happily, it’s a good sign. If he moves away, freezes, or growls, he either doesn’t enjoy being touched or isn’t fond of people. Either way, it’s best to look elsewhere; you want a dog who’s safe to cuddle.

Is the dog interested in balls?

This is only a concern if you have fantasies of playing fetch with your new pooch. Many dogs can be taught to retrieve balls, but some just aren’t interested.

4.Take the dog for a short walk

Does the dog pull or jump up?

Don’t worry too much about these behaviors; you can train them out of a dog. Just make sure that you can at least hang on and control him.

Does he bark excessively, growl, or lunge at other people, dogs, or cars?

He probably hasn’t had enough exposure to the world. Once he’s out of the shelter, he may react aggressively to unfamiliar people or situations. Unless you’re up for a lot of training and socialization, keep looking.

Does the dog cower, hide, freeze and refuse to move?

Then he’s extremely shy and fearful. You can work with timid dogs, but they need lots of training. And, there’s a risk that a timid dog may bite or snap when frightened.

5.Finally, do a gut check

Does the dog seem comfortable with you, and are you comfortable with the dog? Does he give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, or a funny feeling?

You’ll be spending many years with your new dog, so it’s worth listening to your instincts as well doing your research.