“There are lots of different places you can go to get a dog. Some are better than others and there are some you should never patronize.” (From: Pick a Winner, by Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, April 2009). In my last blog, I wrote about choosing an ethical breeder and many of the same qualities that I look for in a breeder apply to a shelter or rescue as well. They are:
1) Have a contract that clearly states the terms of your contract with them.
2) The shelter/rescue should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to them.
3) Make sure your pup has his appropriate shots before you pick him up.
4) They should ask for references from you, and it is fair for you to ask if you can talk to some of their past clients. If they can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss.
However, with shelters or rescues, there are other things to consider and to expect. Pat Miller sums it up:
In the good shelters, staff will have conducted behaviors assessments of the adoption dogs, which will provide you with useful information and help you determine if the dog might be a good match…A really good shelter will give you a thorough and human-friendly vetting before they’ll agree to adopt one of their dogs to you.
Unfortunately, there are many shelters which are not top-notch* and adopting from them may require “conducting your own impromptu assessment** and risking diseases such as kennel cough and parvo that lurk in the corners of substandard facilities.” (Miller, WDJ, April 2009) Be sure to ask if they have had any outbreak of parvovirus or kennel cough in the last 6 months to a year, and if they did, what did they do to prevent a reinfection.***
1) How quickly do they put their dogs up for adoption? It may seem like a great thing that a dog arrives in the morning and is on the floor for adoption by noon, but is that really the best way to insure that owners and dogs are correctly matched? I am of the opinion that dogs should be thoroughly vetted for health issues and behavioral problems and this takes time. I do not think it is inappropriate for a dog to be held for 3-7 days before being put on the adoption floor as this will help to insure that you get a healthy dog whose temperament is better aligned with your needs.
2) What information do they have about the dog? Some things to ask:
How long have they had the dog?
How did it come to be at that shelter/rescue?
Has it been adopted out before and returned? If yes, how many times was it adopted and why was it returned? If the dog has been adopted out and returned several times, find out as much information as you can. There are probably legitimate reasons that the dog was returned and you may need to ask some probing questions to get straight answers. In general, if a dog is returned several times to a shelter or rescue, there is probably a serious issue with the dog that is not being addressed.
Is there a bite history?
Does it like children? Other dogs? Cats?
The organization may not have answers to all of these questions and that is understandable, but they should be asked nevertheless because the staff may have the answers to them and not think about passing that information along until prompted to do so.
The May 2015 issue of Whole Dog Journal had an article, How to Prevent a Bad Adoption, also by Pat Miller (which is in their subscriber’s only section online). In it she discusses how bad adoptions can be traumatic for all involved and gives three examples of difficult adoptions and the problems the adopters faced. She then lists “five things you can do to maximize your chances of adopting a dog who will turn out to be all you want him to be.”
In order, they are:
1) Be willing to wait. Just because you go to the shelter or rescue, does not mean you have to adopt a dog that day. Resist any pressure from staff or volunteers to adopt a dog that doesn’t make your heart sing. You can keep coming back until you find the right dog.
2) Meet the dog before you adopt. Don’t adopt over the internet. You do not know the quality of the shelter or rescue who is offering him and moreover, no matter what the online story says, in reality you simply don’t know who you will be getting unless you meet him. If you absolutely have to have a dog from across the country, fly out and meet him. If you adore him, rent a car and drive back home together.
3) Let your head rule your heart. It is so easy to feel sorry for the scared dog hiding in the back of his kennel, and to think that you have to rescue him. Ask if you can take him to another room that is away from the noise of the kennel or outside where you can spend some quiet time one on one. “If he morphs into a friendly, happy, normal dog when you get him away from the kennels, then you’re on more solid ground; you probably have a reasonably normal dog who is on the sensitive side…Even so, keep in mind that he may also be fearful of other busy or chaotic environments.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015)
On the other hand, if he continues to be fearful away from the noisy environment, “he may be a pathologically fearful dog who will take tons of work and still may never be even close to normal.” (Miller, WDJ, May 2015) Is this really the companion you are seeking? If not, walk away.
4) Ask for a behavior assessment. Behavior assessments or temperament tests cannot tell you everything about a dog, but they can give you more information than you gain by simply looking at the dog. If the dog has been in a foster home, ask for details on his behavior in her home. And, do your observations match what they are telling you? For example, if they say the dog is quiet and well-behaved, but he is overly excited, barking, lunging, and tearing around when you meet him, something is off.
5) Engage a professional to help you find a dog. If you are having a hard time finding the right dog, don’t hesitate to contact a dog trainer or behavior professional to see if they can help you find your new best friend. Be sure to let her know not only what you want in a dog, but what you don’t want, and what you can be flexible about. I have a client who unfortunately had to make the heart-wrenching decision to put a dog down due to aggression towards other dogs and children. They knew they wanted another dog and I told them I would help them locate one. It took 3 years and a lot of looking (and saying no) but at the end of June, I was able to steer them to a wonderful little dog who has made their family complete.
Adopting a dog should not be a traumatic experience. Take the time to do it right and you’ll significantly increase your chances for a successful adoption and the start of a 10-15 year love affair and adventure with your canine buddy.
*I do understand that there are many reasons why some shelters or rescues are not poster children for perfect adoptions. The purpose of this blog is not to discuss why that is, only to give you guidelines as to how to determine the quality of the shelter/rescue and what you can do to better insure a good adoption, from any organization.
**When it comes to evaluating the temperament of a given dog, the primary quality I want in any dog is a high social drive towards people. A strong social drive is your best insurance policy against aggression as the dog who loves people will better tolerate mistakes (such as tripping over him, stepping on a paw, a toddler falling on him, etc.) than a dog who doesn’t care to be around people. There are other things that I want to see in any candidate for adoption, and I discuss them in detail in my blog: Choosing Your New Best Friend. Also check out my webpage on temperament tests.
***Parvo is a particularly difficult virus to get rid of as it is ubiquitous and can last in an environment for several months. Cleaning the area with a bleach solution is the best and most effective means of killing parvo.
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