How to Pick a Shelter Dog

Both of these Dogs came from a Shelter and became Marvelous Service Dogs!

I have often been asked to share my secrets to picking a good adult dog from the shelter, especially since I have spent most of my career scouring shelters to find would-be Assistance Dogs for people with disabilities, and so I thought I would share some of my secrets because it is adopt a shelter dog month!  I have literally taken hundreds of dogs out of shelters!

I love adult dogs because I basically know that what I see is what I get.  Getting a puppy is a tossup as to what the pup will grow up to be size and personality, but with an adult you can already see what size and basically what temperament the dog has!

The first thing to realize is that we might all be searching for something a little bit different in a dog.  When I was looking for Assistance Dogs I was looking for a certain age, size and temperament.  Breed was not necessarily a concern and mixes were always welcome.  Mixed breeds are often more healthy structurally because they are not over bred like some of the more popular breeds of dog.  But I understand that some people will be looking for something breed specific or even mix specific.

Knowledge about the breed or the mixed breed you are looking at can help you determine things about their sociability, their likelihood to be good with other animals, exercise needs and other specific traits the breed was bred for.  This information can be helpful when looking to add a new family member to your pack!

It really doesn’t matter to me whether I was looking at a Pit Bull or a Chihuahua; I was looking for the same thing behaviorally and temperamentally.  I wanted a dog that would be a good, loving companion and a good working dog.

I didn’t want a dog that was aloof or indifferent to human companionship!  Some dogs when left outside and not raised with people get what we use to call “Backyard Dog Syndrome” where they cared more about their environment and everything else that was going on rather than the person in the room with them.  I personally was not interested in these dogs although I am not saying that some of them would not make appropriate pets for the right person.

Shelter Dogs Can Make Perfect Pets

My biggest rule was not to get involved emotionally.  I could not keep nor save them all and I went to the shelter knowing that they might not have the right dog and that day and I could be coming home dog-less.  There is no reason to feel like you MUST take a dog from one shelter on one specific day, it may take some searching to find the right companion for you!  Do not feel pressured by anyone.  Rash decisions can lead to future unhappiness for you and the dog you might be pressured into choosing.

Do not take your children, at least not the first time.  If you find a dog you are interested in you can bring the kids back to the shelter, but children often fall in love at the mere sight of a dog and you don’t want to adopt a dog on looks alone or a dog that is not right for your family.

When walking through the shelter I am looking for the dog who wants to come up and interact with me.  For my purposes, I was not interested in the dogs hiding in the back of the kennel or those who would not get up.  I didn’t’ care if the dog jumped up on the kennel door as long as he wasn’t barking aggressively or staring at me in challenge.

I would next put my hand up to the door (NOT in the kennel!) and move it from side to side and up and down.  I wanted a dog that would follow my hand and want to interact with me.  It was okay if he was a little timid at the sight of my hand as long as he was still willing to follow it and want to interrelate with me.  I was also watching the tail; I wanted a low side to side tail wag, not a tucked tail or one that was high and straight on the back (unless this was due to breed).  I did not take out dogs that were exceedingly scared or those that showed aggression.

The other pointer I would recommend if you are not in the dog profession, is finding a shelter that does temperament testing.  I know that this is very controversial!  Temperament testing in shelters is quite the heated debate, but most people who adopt from shelters are first time dog owners and they need all the help they can get!

Temperament tests usually run the dogs through a series of normal tests so that the tester or shelter can get a better idea about what homes to place their dogs in.  There is physical manipulation of the dog like checking his teeth and some irritation so that aggression and a lack of bite inhibition can be identified.  The dogs are also given toys, treats, chewies and food and then they are then taken away to see if the dog has possession aggression issues.

There are many naysayers that adamantly protest temperament tests; however I would not want my 4 year old toddler to be the unfamiliar guinea pig to see if the new dog would allow someone to take away his “treasure” or to try and take away a stolen Barbie doll or your child’s toy.

People will say that the child should never be left alone with the dog and I tenaciously agree, however I know that accidents happen and dogs steal Barbie when mom or dad’s head is turned and sometimes kids chase down and take stuff away from dogs.  Although there is no guarantee and an adult tester depicts what a dog would do with a child, I would want a dog that at least tested with no signs of aggression.  THEN I would still not allow dog and child to play together unattended or even without the new dog on a leash!

In my opinion, these tests can be invaluable at finding the right home for the right dog and at the moment I am not talking about temperament tests and euthanasia that would be a whole different article that I don’t really want to get into 😉  When you take euthanasia out of the equation, temperament tests can simply give vital information to the shelter staff and the prospective family.

I never took a dog from a shelter that I did not temperament test!

Some other simple tests are taking the new prospective family member into a room and ignoring him for a short time to see if he is really interested in YOU or his environment.  I want a dog that wants to be with me, not one I have to bribe to pay attention to me.  Some would say this test isn’t really fair, but a truly friendly dog will want nothing else to do than to be petted and crawl into your lap.

I never cared if the dog jumped on me because dogs can be trained to stay off of people, but I wanted a social and loving dog.  I once had a nervous German Shepherd Dog inch over to me sit on my feet and put his head in my lap; I was in love!

Not all dogs like to be petted, some dogs will actually turn around and shoot you a look as if to say “Don’t touch Me!”  Some dogs will shake their bodies after being petted as if to shake off the cooties you just gave them.  I was only interested in the dogs who enjoyed and searched for more petting.  Again nuzzling and jumping up on me to be with me with not only accepted it was encouraged when I was searching for a dog.

As long as I was feeling comfortable and there were no signs of aggression I would also checked their teeth several times in a row to see if they were tolerant of unwelcomed touch; since no one likes their lips being lifted up 4 or 5 times.

Save a Life Adopt a Dog from a Shelter!

In general, when I was looking for a potential working Service Dog I used most of the Assess-A-Pet guides for temperament testing with some extra tweaks of my own!  You can find more information in this book Successful Dog Adoption from Sue Sternberg.

The most important thing is to not do things you are not comfortable doing or putting yourself at risk for a bite.  If the shelter does not temperament test you can probably employ the help of an experienced, good local dog trainer to help you in your search.

The other secret is that sick dogs obviously don’t test effectively.  Sometimes dogs in the shelter are sick with upper respiratory infections and so their temperament tests are ineffective.  I have on occasion tested a dog that tested marvelously then got the dog home only to find out he was sick with an infection.  Keep that in mind if your new family pet is sick when he gets home you might have to keep an extra careful eye on him as he acclimates to family and your other pets.

AND, it is my experience that it takes a dog about a month to settle into your life.  The first few weeks are the “honeymoon stage” when the dog is on his best behavior and he is trying to figure out you and your lifestyle.  Keep an eye out;  some of his behaviors might change after this initial bonding period.  Make sure you are working on obedience and bonding while setting rules and playing games together.

As with any dog or puppy always make sure your other pets and children are safe and never left alone with a new dog or even a new puppy!  As your new family member adapts enjoy each other and have fun together and you may very well find your new furry soul mate!

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  1. Gwen says:

    Great post. I have a personal question- is that rude? Around a month ago, I got a very sweet rescue dog. She reminds me of the nervous German Shepherd you talked about. But she won’t play with toys at all, she just doesn’t understand them. Fetch is a complete mystery. I can’t get her to “take” anything but food items; I hold them, move them like prey, play “keep it” with my boyfriend from her, and get excited when she touches them. But even the calm praise for her touching a toy is enough to get her to run to me. Luckily, she will chase me, so we do that (I have also tried running with a toy). I’ve tried slathering the toys with peanut butter, cheese and baloney grease. I want to play with her; I want her to be happy and have a good life! Do you have any advice for this?


    Minette Reply:

    Give her time! She is adjusting and may never have had a toy before in her life. As she learns to trust you and enjoy life she will probably learn to play with toys. Continue to involve them in your life and hers and I bet eventually she will want to play with you but it may take months for her to completely adjust!


  2. Gwen says:

    Thanks for the reply. I’ll keep up the play and praise! I love the blog.


  3. Karen says:

    I have a Lab-Pit mix, 2 year old. How to I teach her to stay in the yard, we only have 1 acre for her to play in.

    On basic commands (sit, wait, stay?, settle, leave-it, walk {when she starts to pull on leash} drop-it) but I am at a loss that even with an in-ground electric fence w/collar I can not get her to stay in the yard! Can you help me??? Desperate in OR.


  4. Emily says:

    Very good advice. I adopted my dog a little over a year ago when she was about 4 months old. She was quite calm, attentive, and simply a good girl at the shelter. I got her home and she slept for what seemed like days. I had never seen such a quiet, lazy dog especially for a puppy! Then she started coughing. Turns out she was so sick with an upper respiratory disease. Once the vet cleared that up she turned into a holy terror. I have never seen so much energy come from one dog. The first year was very difficult to say the least. But the attentive and affectionate “good girl” personality I had first seen at the shelter was still there. With a lot of time and more than a little money invested into training she is growing into a really wonderful dog and my best friend.


  5. Judi Werdahl says:

    Got my service dog from the pound she was 4 months old and hide in the back would not walk on the leash. My grandson had to carry her out. She is now very outgoing and loves everyone. She is still learning at 16 months not to go to everyone for love but she picks things up for me, braces so I can get up and down, finds my car in walmart parking lot, and is learning to pester me for me to eat and take my pills. She is a field gordon setter. I have 3 other dogs. 1 is my older 11yr pitbull/shepherd service dog but he does not fetch, a 15yr old cocker/pug who help raise these pups and a chiwennie also out of the pound who is 11 months and weighs 10 lbs my lap dog and she is learning not to be scared of out of yard noises. I try to get my dogs from the pound to save a life.


  6. I`m going to the shelter, looking for a dog that doesn`t shed an a small dog,,where I live it has to be a small dog,,i`m a dog lover,i have always had a dog .but haven`t had a pet for some time..looking forward to finding one..i would like to fine a mix bred.. thanks BETTIE


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