So you are ready to adopt your new best friend, but when you think of going to a shelter your heart breaks because you wish you could take all of them home and thus you do not know what to do? Well, I hope to help you gain some clarity on this very important life decision. Before going to the shelter or rescue organization, I think you need to be very honest with yourself about your life style and financial capacity.
Do you live in a small apartment but have dreamed of having a Mastiff all your life? Maybe, that breed is not the right one for you at the moment. Do you love Great Danes but do not have the budget to spend $500 or more on dog food? Hm, perhaps you should be in a better financial situation in order to provide for your new buddy and not stress yourself out. Do your kids want a puppy, but you already feel like you have no time and are short on patience? Well, maybe adopting an older dog is a better fit for you and your family. What’s your work schedule like?
While there is no formula to picking the best dog for yourself or family, thinking about your home space, lifestyle, and spending capacity is a good way to start. Once you decide on a small dog or big dog that narrows things down a bit, and you can think about hair length and color. However, these are all superficial preferences that you may or may not find at a shelter. Nonetheless, what is most important beyond size and color is the behavior and “personality” of an animal. This is a little more tricky to figure out and assess correctly in a shelter setting due to the stress and anxiety an animal can be experiencing at the time.
In addition, a dog’s age can also define how they react in a shelter environment. For example, Nancy Kelly, owner of The Mannerly Dog Professional Training and Behavior Consultation, states “that a six-month-old to an eight-month-old dog goes through a “fear period” that may make them appear a bit more reactive or shy than they would be in a different environment or with some maturity and supportive interaction from a human”.
Dogs that are jumping up and down in their cage may appear to your eye to be overly friendly and active, but it may well be that they are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. Contrastingly, a dog that is curled up in the back of its cage not moving does not mean the dog is unfriendly. It could be that it is tired, not feeling well or just terrified. Thus, it is very important when you go into a shelter that you do not judge an animal at first sight. Instead, have the shelter staff take the dog outside to a free roaming or socializing area, and spend at least 30 minutes with the dog.
Important things to notice during this interaction as pointed out by Nancy “is whether the dog is pulling a lot on its leash and whether you can help him walk with you politely with the use of treats and good leash handling skills”. Furthermore, she mentions to observe if the dog pays attention to the handler? Will he eat a treat, or is he too stressed to take one? Does the dog get overly excited when he sees other dogs or people? All of these things can be indicative of a dog’s behavioral qualities and stress level, and can be improved. More impactful than what the dog is doing when outside is how YOU interact with the dog. Yes, YOUR behavior can have an impact on the dog’s behavior.
It is best if you stay calm and do not get overly excited when meeting a dog for the first time. Why? Nancy explains that “dogs react to what’s going on around them, much like we do – if everyone is moving quickly, waving their hands in their excitement over the dog, and talking loudly and excitedly, the dog is likely to become over-excited or what is termed “aroused,” a state in which the dog is out of control and impulsive – this doesn’t help you understand what the dog can really be like.”
Then you might think the dog is too much to handle or crazy, but in reality it is reacting to the people’s behavior around it. The shelter staff do their best in writing a behavior assessment of each dog in adoptions, but it can never be 100% accurate due to the different environmental stimuli at a given moment. However, asking the kennel attendant questions on its behavior can be a good indication of the dog’s personality.
In addition, keep in mind that the days a dog has been in a shelter can affect its behavior. As Nancy Kelly has observed, “some dogs fare pretty well in a shelter setting, and others don’t, though shelter staff work hard to meet their mental and emotional needs as well as their physical needs”. You should also take into consideration the breeds a dog is mixed with or if you find a pure breed to adopt, as there will be innate biological traits that your dog might display when mixed with certain breeds. For example, Labrador mixes might love water and/or hunting birds, while terrier mixes might be very alert and active.
As you can see, there are so many factors to consider when picking the “right” dog for you at a shelter, but what I recommend the most is to not judge a dog’s character just by looking at him or her in a cage. Put yourself in the dog‘s paws and realize you don’t know who has tried to train the dog before nor how, what experiences or genetics have affected the dog’s personality, or how other visitors have interacted with the dog at the shelter, affecting how he responds to you when you visit. In addition, make sure you have control over YOUR behavior and YOUR excitement in order to better assess THEIR behavior.
And most importantly remember this universal truth that I saw over and over at BARC Animal Shelter & Adoptions: With your love, time and discipline, so many dogs can flourish and become amazing companions. Just educate yourself on dog behavior, use good handling and management skills and you will see your new furry friend blossom!