A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

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How to Adopt a Dog Ep. 2: Figuring Out What You Want

The rest of the series:

Ep 1. How to Mentally Prepare for a New Dog
Ep 2. Figuring Out What You Want
Ep 3. How to Pick a Dog from a Shelter

Links mentioned in the video:

Obligatory disclaimer-y thing: the animal shelter footage was recorded at Maricopa County Animal Care (MCAC). The views and opinions expressed in this video are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of MCAC.

Music: “Danger Storm” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0


So you’ve decided that you want to go to a shelter and get a dog. Fantastic! This video will help you figure out exactly what you’re looking for. So I’m going to talk for a while, about things like trainability, and energy levels/exercise requirements, and personality traits, and while I’m talking, you should start making a list of your dog criteria. The traits you want, and your deal breakers. It’s just like dating. Except… well, I’m not even going to go there. Fill in the blank with your preferred joke.

A note on breed identification

Throughout this video, I’m going to list some dog breeds as examples of the traits I’m talking about, which is just to give you a starting point for your research. Even within a particular breed, you’ll find a wide variety of personality traits. Any time you’re looking at a potential dog, but especially at a shelter where 75% of the dogs are mixed breeds, breed traits don’t matter as much as the actual real-live dog sitting in front of you.


How much training are you willing to do?

Any dog you get is going to need to be trained to some degree, and some dogs are easier to train than others. There are dogs who have a high tolerance for frustration, and are forgiving of trainer error. Which is a polite way of saying that these dogs are so happy to work with you, they’ll put up with your bullshit. All the stupid mistakes you make, all your poorly timed cues, all your sloppy communication.

These dogs are also easy to motivate. They’re willing to work very hard for motivators that are easy to dish out, like food or frisbees. These are the dogs that we call “easy to train,” or “eager to please,” or “smart.” This would be a good dog for someone who doesn’t want to have to put much effort into training. Maybe you’re looking for a nice family pet, you’ve got three young kids and you’ve got enough on your plate trying to navigate their motivators and short attention spans? You’ll want one of these dogs who is highly motivated by food. I’ll teach you how to find a food-motivated dog in the next video, but for now, just get your criteria list and write down “food motivated.”

This category can include pit bulls, dobermans, papillions, golden retrievers, labradors, Shetland sheepdogs, German shepherds, Australian shepherds, border collies, and pretty much all the herding type dogs, But! As we shall see, the herding types will make you pay for their easy-to-train-ness.

A dog might be harder to train if they’re less tolerant of human bullshit, they’re not quite as passionate about working with people, and they have motivators that are harder to implement in a training session. Scent hounds, like beagles and bloodhounds, for example, can be harder to train because they get keep getting distracted by their noses. Dogs with a low-tolerance for bullshit are sometimes referred to as “stubborn.” A lot of Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes, shiba inus, and chow chows fall into this category.

How much training do you WANT to do? You might be one of those people who look forward to doing as much training as possible, like if you want to train a dog for agility competitions or if you want to nerd out over clicker training and teach your dog a ton of tricks. In which case, you’re one of my people, welcome to 3 Lost Dogs, we’ll get along just fine.

A harder-to-train dog might be a fun challenge for you. “Stubborn” dogs tend to respond really well to clicker training. But most likely, you’ll want a dog who is as big a nerd as you are, especially if you’re new to your sport or new to training. Look for a dog who is food-motivated and toy-motivated. Being excited about toys tends to be a pretty good indicator of a dog who will do well in dog sports.

Energy level

How active are you, really? You need to get brutally honest here. You don’t need to share your answer with me, but you need to know. A mismatch in energy levels is one of the biggest sources of misery for dog adopters and their dogs. Say you want a partner for hiking and walking. If that means you plan on taking your dog on big adventures several times a week, then a more athletic, high-energy dog might be for you. But if you work full time and save all your hiking for the weekends, a high-energy dog will probably make your life miserable. In this case, the best dog for you is one you can live with the other five days of the week. The one who will be happy to sleep the day away while you’re at work.

On a similar note, if you’re thinking of trying your first agility class, a border collie puppy is probably overkill. Shelters are full of well-socialized, young adult mixed breeds, who often make fantastic first agility dogs.

Beyond just exercise, a big factor is your dog’s mental stimulation requirements. Dogs need ways to exercise their brains, otherwise they go crazy. Brainwork can include things like puzzle toys, trick training, obedience training, nosework, or setting up a backyard agility course.

Generally, the “‘smarter” a dog is, the more brainwork they require.

Herding dogs like border collies and Belgian malinois are very smart and very trainable, and they will be happy to work on whatever projects you want. If I want to spend all day perfecting a new frisbee trick, my belgian malinois, River, is completely happy to do that. She will never get tired of playing frisbee. And if I want to try some nerdy new clicker training technique, my border collie Merlin is just as big a clicker nerd as I am, and he’s happy to spend all day doing that.

But the price you pay for all that intelligence and enthusiasm is that you have to devote a lot of your day to your dog. Otherwise, they can develop all kinds of problems. These dogs are best for people who want a dog to work with, rather than just a pet. If the thought of studying dog training methods and constantly coming up with new ways to make your dog’s puzzle toys more challenging makes your eyes glaze over, a herding dog will drive you absolutely fucking insane (to put it in polite terms).

If you’re not active or don’t have much time to devote to exercising your dog’s body and mind, look for a lower energy dog. This could mean a dog who is at least three years old, or a low energy breed like pugs, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, basset hounds, great danes, and a lot of smaller-breed chihuahua-type mixes. You’ll probably want to avoid dogs in the terrier, herding, and working categories.

Sociability with dogs

If you have dogs at home, a big priority should be finding a dog who gets along with dogs. Not just tolerates them, but actively likes them. When looking for a buddy for your current dog, look at the kind of dog they already get along with. If you’ve taken your dog to training classes, or dog parks, or if they’ve met your friends dogs, you’ve probably noticed that there are dogs they gravitate to more than others. Maybe your dog likes to roughhouse and play with loud obnoxious dogs. Maybe he prefers quieter, gentler dogs.

If you don’t have dogs, but plan on participating in dog sports, you’ll want one who at least tolerates the presence of other dogs. At most agility classes and competitions, dogs don’t really interact with each other, but if your dog is afraid or aggressive, you’ll end up doing a ton of behavior modification just to get the dog comfortable with other dogs before you ever get to the fun stuff.

If you don’t have other dogs and don’t plan on being around other dogs, sociability doesn’t matter so much, but no matter what, always ask the staff about the dog’s history with other dogs so that you don’t run into any surprises.

I can’t give any breed recommendations for this; it always comes down to the individual.

Sociability with people

Do you want a dog to cuddle with? Look for a dog who wants to sit in your lap during the meet-and-greet, and avoid the one who doesn’t show much interest in affection.

If you have kids, look for a dog who not just tolerates, but really loves kids. Again, I can’t give breed recommendations because this always depends on the individual dog. A good choice for families with little kids tend to be outgoing medium-sized, moderate-energy dogs. A hyperactive 70 pound teenage pit bull might love your kids, but you’ll spend all your time keeping him from knocking them over. And delicate little toy breeds are breakable, and toddlers, ya know, tend to break things.

Can you handle a dog with “issues?”

There’s a misconception that all dogs in shelters have behavior problems, which is definitely not true. The vast majority are perfectly fine. However, you will find plenty that do have behavior issues.

Common issues include separation anxiety, reactivity, and fearfulness. Some dogs are aggressive with other dogs, and need a home that can commit to having that dog be the only dog in the house. There are a lot of adolescent puppies whose previous owners got them as baby puppies, didn’t socialize them, and surrendered them when they became rude, un-socialized adolescents.

What happens if you visit the shelter and fall in love with a dog like this?

Adopting a dog like this can be very rewarding, but you need to make sure you are prepared to handle it. Some issues, like mild shyness or adolescent rudeness, can be worked through with patience and some hard work, not to mention a lot of self doubt and frustration. But there are other issues, like severe separation anxiety or fear-reactivity, that will completely change the way you live your life.

So do some research into these behavior issues. Read up on the kind of training and behavior modification it takes. See if it’s something you could handle. Decide if you’re willing to research good trainers and behaviorists and invest in their professional help. If you think you could do it, great. If not, that’s great, too: there is no shame in recognizing that you’re not what that dog needs, and moving on to find a dog you can help. Another option is to join a shelter as a foster home, so you can temporarily take in challenging dogs without committing to that dog for life.

Puppy or Adult?

The big exciting question: can you handle a puppy? Recently, I made the… interesting choice of raising two puppies in the space of one year, and this experience has made me vow to never get a puppy ever again as long as I live.

Well, that’s not true. I’m sure I’ll get a puppy again someday. Once I’ve forgotten how terrible raising a puppy is. Don’t get me wrong – I love puppies. Puppies are fantastic. They’re so much fun. But at the same time, my god, puppies are terrible.

Puppies are incredibly time- and labor-intensive. So only get a puppy if you can make that puppy a priority for the next six months.

The big issue for puppies under five months of age is socialization. During this time, puppies need to be carefully introduced to all kinds of people and animals and situations. Otherwise, they can end up being fearful or rude when they get older. The socialization process can be a lot of fun, and it means you can prepare your puppy for exactly the kind of life you plan for them to live. If you intend to compete in agility, for instance, you’ll introduce your puppy to agility obstacles and big crowds and parks where there are big events happening so they’ll get used to that kind of chaotic environment.

But socialization can also be stressful on the human: if you do it wrong, you could screw up your dog.

No pressure.

Another big issue? Housetraining. During the day, puppies under five months need to go to the bathroom every two hours. At least. This is a logistical nightmare if everybody in the house goes to work or school all day.

If you have a toddler or young kids, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your life suddenly revolves around keeping the puppy from chewing on them.

If you’re ready for the challenge, great. If you’re just looking for a dog to chill on the couch while you play video games, maybe don’t get a puppy. Puppies have no chill. No chill whatsoever.

If you’re wondering if a puppy is right for you, check out the absurdly long video I made about my puppy, River. That’ll give you a good idea of what the experience is like.

So I’ve been talking for a very long time now, but this all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I suggest you get real comfortable on this iceberg for a while. Set up base camp on this iceberg. And continue doing research because you can never be too prepared.