Walking into a shelter is not for the faint of heart. As you enter, the cacophony of barking dogs is overwhelming. A young lab literally throws himself at his kennel gate barking. There’s no way you could manage a hyper dog like this one. The dog in the next run is quietly hiding in the back and trembling. This poor dog needs to be saved.
In reality, the hyper lab may not have had a walk or been able to release excess energy in days. If he were living in a good home where he received daily exercise, he might be a wonderful dog. The fearful, timid dog might continue to be scared of new experiences and people even outside the shelter.
Dogs in shelters are living in a constant state of stress. It’s impossible to predict a dog’s behavior under normal circumstances when he or she is living in such an unnatural environment. Because stress causes all kinds of behavior changes, it can be very difficult to predict a dog’s true personality in a shelter environment. So how do you pick the right dog? In an effort to identify potential behavior issues, many shelters use temperament tests in an attempt to evaluate dogs. These tests include criteria like: interest in people, ability to recover from a stressor, resource-guarding tendencies (food, toys, bones, etc.), fear of men or children, and tolerance for being touched in common ways. The problem with these tests is that they are administered when the dog is living in a strange and stressful environment. Experienced shelter staff members who perform these tests and regularly interact with dogs on a daily basis are the best source of information about the dog. Their subjective input is often the most accurate.
Whether you are selecting a dog from a shelter or a reputable breeder, you can greatly increase your chances of getting the right dog for you by developing a list of criteria before starting your search.
1. Activity level and exercise needs. Be realistic about how much exercise you can give a dog. Young dogs need more exercise than older ones, and a leash walk is often just a warm up. Shelters are full of high-energy adolescent dogs whose prior families couldn’t meet their exercise needs. A young dog that receives too little exercise is a recipe for disaster. Chewing, barking, and other unwanted behaviors will ensue.
2. Schedule. How much time will you be able to spend with your dog during the day? Many shelter dogs develop some level of separation anxiety. Initially, this manifests as the “velcro” dog who follows you everywhere. As they settle into your home, the problem usually gets better. Some do have true separation anxiety, which may be why they were turned into the shelter in the first place. A dog with separation anxiety has a full-on panic attack when left alone. There are homeopathic and prescription drugs that can help, but this is a difficult behavior to “fix.” Be realistic about what you are willing to take on.
3. Reactivity to activity and noises. Herding breeds are naturally more reactive to sights and sounds. Do you have small children or loud teenagers, or live on a busy street? If so, a highly reactive dog probably isn’t the best choice for you. Thorough temperament evaluations should test how quickly a dog can settle down once aroused, but they don’t often test for a dog’s reaction to the sudden appearance of a bike or car.
4. Orientation to people. Most people want a dog that likes to be around them. Some dogs are much more interested in their environment than people. In a shelter, this lack of interest could be fear-based. Shelter dogs often bond with their caretakers and, as a result, the staff members see what a dog could be like in a home. If you are selecting a pup from a shelter or a breeder, look for the pup that approaches you, not the one hiding in the corner. The hider will likely be more timid and fearful of new people and experiences.
5. Looks can be deceiving. Make sure you are very clear about the other criteria that are important to you. How a dog looks is important, but it should never be a trade off for the other characteristics.
There is no way to ensure that you will get the perfect dog, but being clear about your priorities in selecting a companion will help. Work only with shelters and breeders who will take a dog back if the match isn’t right. Good ones screen adopters very carefully because they want the match to work. They know firsthand how stressful it is for a dog to return to a shelter.
~ Carla Brown is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and the owner of the Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. Info: thesavvydog.net. Comment on this column below.