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How to Adopt a Dog Ep. 3: How to Pick a Dog From a Shelter

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” and “Laser Groove” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0


So now the fun part: it’s time to go to the shelter and find your dog. This video will give you some tips for how to evaluate a dog.

Something to be aware of is that being in a shelter is kind of a shitty thing for a dog to deal with (big surprise). So understandably, their behavior might be a little off. Dogs don’t always show their true personality in a shelter. So our big objective with this video, and this evaluation method, is to figure out if the dog is relaxed enough to show you who he really is, or if he’s acting abnormally. Is he truly calm and easygoing, or is he shut down? Is he energetic, or is he frantic?

An important first step: learn dog body language

Learning to “speak dog” is going to be the most reliable way to be able to know what you’re getting into. Something that happens a lot in shelters: the staff introduce a dog to a potential adopter, and this trained staff member is watching this dog say all kinds of things about who he is and how he’s feeling, but the adopter often doesn’t realize the dog is saying anything at all. Or worse, they think he’s saying something he’s not. The most common miscommunication is the difference between a dog who is calm and a dog who is shut down. They kinda look the same if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A dog who is shut down means that he’s so afraid or so intimidated, that he’s just stopped moving, pretty much. He might just be sitting still, or moving very slowly. Sometimes, adopters look at this dog and say, “oh wow, he’s so calm and relaxed!”

This dog is the opposite of calm and relaxed.

Once this dog gets into a home, he’ll start to show you his true personality.

So do some research. Learn about stress signals, and how to tell the difference between calm and shut down. So once you go to a shelter, you’ll be able to tell if the dog you’re meeting is truly relaxed enough to show you who he really is.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t adopt a dog who shows signs of stress; often, these dogs will be perfectly fine when they get out of the crazy shelter situation. You just have to be aware that the dog is suppressing his normal behavior, and will likely have some behavior changes when you get him into your home.

A crash course in dog body language

First thing to pay attention to: the way the dog holds himself. A dog who is feeling pretty good will have no tension in his body, he’ll move around a lot, even a calm dog will move around a lot. He’ll be kind of wiggly in the shoulders and the spine.

Look at the face: the ears should move around a lot. His eyes will be almond shaped, not too wide, the forehead will be free of tension.

A dog who is uncomfortable may be very slow and still. The eyes may be wide – wide enough to show the whites of the eye. He’ll be tense all the way through his body. Not moving much, or moving very slowly and deliberately. He might yawn a lot, blink slowly, or deliberately turn his head away and back.

If you’re meeting a small dog and you put her in your lap and she’s just sitting, pretty rigid, not really interacting, not making eye contact, she’s probably very nervous. What you want to see with a small dog on your lap: no tension in the body. She should look up at your face, sniff or lick your face, the ears may bounce up and down a lot. I guess what it comes down to is: no hesitation to interact. If she’s just sitting there, not paying attention when you talk or offer your hand to sniff, she’s probably very tense. Not calm.

There’s obviously a hell of a lot more to it. Check out the links above.

When you go to the shelter

-Bring really good treats. Like plain cooked chicken or hot dogs. If you want to get really fancy, bring two kinds of treats: real meat, and something boring, like dog biscuits. This will help you determine a dog’s level of food-motivation. A dog who goes nuts over boring biscuits will probably be easier to train.
-Bring two kinds of dog toys. like a squeaky toy and a tennis ball.

Disclaimer: follow the shelter’s lead on the meet-and-greet process. Some shelters have very structured methods, others don’t. I’ll tell you my method but of course, always follow their lead.

The Walkthrough

Walk through the whole shelter, see all the dogs. Ask questions of the staff and volunteers, let them know what you’re looking for. They might have suggestions for you.

When you’re walking through, keep in mind that you can’t judge a shelter dog by their kennel presence.
Dogs often act very different in their kennel than they do when they’re out. A perfect example of this is a dog I met named Benedict. Benedict’s kennel behavior could be mistaken for aggression: tense body language, intense barking and jumping. It intimidates potential adopters, understandably. But when I took him for a walk he was at totally different dog. He’s highly food-motivated, loves people, and stayed relaxed and focused on me despite all the distractions. Benedict would make a great agility dog, or a pet for an active family.

So don’t be afraid to give a dog who seems crazy in their kennel a chance. They could be a hidden gem.

The meet-and-greet

So now you’ve got a potential candidate out of his kennel to meet him. The dog may need a moment to stretch his legs or sniff or go to the bathroom. Let him do that, then you want to call him over and introduce yourself.

After initial warmup, offer toys and treats. Many dogs are too distracted to play with toys in the shelter, and then once they get into a home, they might be more interested. But you will find quite a few who get very excited about toys at the shelter. Dogs like that are good dog sports candidates.

When you offer food, most dogs will take real meat treats. Lack of interest in real meat may indicate that the dog is too overwhelmed or afraid. But if the dog shows a lot of interest in the food, ignoring all other distractions, or if he is just as excited about boring dry biscuits as he is about the real meat, this indicates a highly food-motivated, easier-to-train dog.

After politely introducing yourself, get a little “rude.” Gently grab her ears, tail and paws. Stand and lean slightly over her. Some dogs will be uncomfortable with this. The best family dogs will not mind at all. If you’re not comfortable handling the dog like this, ask the staff member to do so.

How does the dog do with your kids? The best family dogs will be thrilled to meet your children In fact, ideally the dog should rather play with them than you. Beware any dog who avoids or ignores the kids. Also watch out for dogs who just doesn’t interact with them enthusiastically. This might be his way of telling you he’s just not a kid person.

Ask if you can take the dog to a different area. Dogs sometimes act differently in different environments. So if the shelter has an indoor meet-and-greet room and and outdoor play yard, ask if you can take the dogs to both.

Watch the dog’s behavior when he walks through the shelter. He’ll probably pull on leash. That’s fine – it’s not really fair to expect perfect leash manners in this chaotic environment. Just take note of if he seems to pull too much for you, like if he’s maybe too strong for you to handle? And you’re also looking for is any sign of aggression or fear. Does he lunge, barks, cower or growl at passing people or dogs?

Does he pay attention to you despite the distractions? If you have a dog out in a play yard, and he wants to focus on you, despite all the excitement around him, this is a good sign. Indicates the dog might be easier to train.

Don’t rush through a meet-n-greet for the staff member’s sake. People often apologize to me for taking up my time, which is very nice of them, but it’s unnecessary. You’re making a big life changing decision after all. Take all the time you need.

I recommend meeting more than one dog. Even if you think you’ve found The One on your first try, you should meet-n-greet with more than one dog. This will give you a better idea of how dogs behave in the shelter, what’s normal, what’s not, and what is a possible warning sign.

Making the decision

Now you have a good idea of what you’re working with. You’ve found a dog who fits a good chunk of your criteria, you’ve ruled out dogs with your dealbreakers. There is no perfect evaluation method, and after all the careful preparation you’ve done, it usually comes down to a gut feeling. You’re looking for a hell yes, not an “…I guess?” Sometimes a dog is perfect on paper, fitting all your criteria, and yet… you’re not feeling it. Don’t take a dog just because “yeah, I guess this one will work.” It’s fine to take some time to think about it and come back later.

So, that’s about it. Hopefully this series helps you find your dog. If it does, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear your story.