How to Find the Perfect Dog at Your Local Shelter

There are about 5K+ animal shelters in the United States and growing. About 5 million dogs enter these shelters each year, and more than half must be euthanized. A surprisingly small percentage of dogs who enter these shelters – only about 15% – are returned to their owners. Some shelters have policies which restrict the killing of dogs for non-medical reasons, but most of these “No-Kill” shelters must frequently turn dogs away because of overcrowding.

Some dogs are in animal shelters because their owners were no longer able to care for them. Others are there for behavioral reasons such as fear, aggression or housebreaking. Canine Dimensions dog trainers work with shelters throughout the country to help establish training programs for dogs, help conduct temperament evaluations, and provide safety  training for staff and volunteers.

We have also assisted Canine CellMates in Atlanta, GA with the evaluation of dogs entering their program. Canine Cellmates is a program that operates out of Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia. Their mission is to help rehabilitate inmates at Fulton County Jail and homeless dogs from Fulton County Animal Services through a Good Behavior Incentive program. They give inmates a productive new sense of hope and newly trained skills to care for and train shelter dogs, while giving the dogs the skills they need in order to become adopted into loving and caring homes.

Most dogs become available for adoption, while others go on to train as service dogs and some are placed in the homes of veterans who need a companion.  The inmates learn responsibility in caring for a dog, accountability in working towards a goal and experience the unconditional love and positive physical contact that caring for a dog provides. The incidence of violence in prisons and jails where these types of programs are in place has shown a marked decrease, sometimes as much as 50%. Recidivism rates have also shown dramatic improvements.

Canine Dimensions certified dog trainer Amanda Striker conducted hundreds of temperament evaluations for dogs who entered the program. To get a group of about 10 dogs she had to test between 40 and 50 dogs for issues such as fear, aggression and resource guarding. Careful selection of the right dogs for this program helped insure its incredible success. There are simple and very effective methods that YOU can use to select the dog that’s right for your family.  Remember, your goal is not to find the perfect dog – but rather the dog that’s perfect for you

Let’s get started!

Going to the animal shelter can be a heart wrenching experience when you see how many wagging tails are just looking for a good home. If you have decided to adopt a pet dog from a local rescue organization or animal shelter, you are about to save a life! Many people feel that shelter dogs make the best pets. Some of the best dog and owner relationships that we have seen,  first started in a local shelter. But there’s also the other side of the coin – people sometimes go to the shelter and pick a dog that’s a bit too much for them to handle, or one that is not the best match for their lifestyle. Choosing a dog that’s right for your family is no simple task. You are likely to be overwhelmed by the large number of dogs you will encounter. In fact, without a plan, the odds are against finding one who is a really good match. With so many dogs to choose from, it makes a lot of sense to take a logical approach rather than an emotional one.

Picture the PERFECT dog for your family. Before even thinking about going to the shelter,  do the following – gather everyone together and ask each family member to name the characteristics that make up the perfect dog. Maybe everyone will agree and this will be an easy exercise, but if your family is anything like mine there will be a wide variety of opinions on this subject. In general the most likely answer will be that the perfect dog for your family is a playful but quiet, shaggy but short haired, big but small, male but female, young but not too young, older but not too old lovable dog. This would be a dog your daughter can jog with who also enjoys sitting by the fire with your wife. A calm dog who enjoys playing fetch with your son who also happens to be very smart,    but not smart enough to figure out how to open up the trash can.

Try to picture the perfect dog but make a list according to your priorities. You’re probably going to have to compromise on a few things, but starting out by identifying what the perfect dog looks like to your family is a valuable exercise, well worth the time.

Once you’ve done this and you are ready to start visiting your local shelters, be sure to avoid these common mistakes:

Mistake #1: Choosing a Dog With Your Heart (Instead of Your Head)
Don’t adopt on impulse. Follow a plan. Do not make this important decision based solely on emotion.

Mistake #2: “Rescuing” the Fearful, Trembling Dog in the Corner
While a certain amount of fear is common in new arrivals to a shelter, a dog with chronic fear (we’ll teach you how to tell the difference below) is a poor match for anyone but an experienced owner, and often requires the help of an in-home trainer.  Don’t take on a “Project Dog” unless you have the time, money, patience and a commitment for training.

Mistake #3: Not Paying Attention to Advice from the Shelter Staff
The shelter staff can often provide quite a bit of valuable information about the dogs under their care. In essence, the shelter staff is acting as the “foster parents” of the dogs there at that time. Before getting into specifics about any particular dog, it’s always a good idea to get to know them a little bit first by asking them questions in a friendly and curious manner about how long they have been there and how they came to work at the shelter. Also, remember people that generally like to talk about themselves and also love to give advice. If you encourage them to tell their story and also put in their two cents by allowing them to give their opinion, they can be a source of invaluable information. Asking questions is a great place to start.

Engage them in conversation by asking specific questions, and listening carefully to the answers. Many of these people are volunteers who are dedicated to helping people and pets. Take advantage of their knowledge and expertise. Specific questions like, “We have a lot of little kids running in and out of the house all day. Which dogs here would be OK with that?” Try to get specific answers. Those that really bond with certain dogs and want them to get adopted will tell you a lot about the dog if given a chance to give their opinion and advice.Many shelters and animal adoption centers utilize standardized screening protocols like the ASPCA’s “Meet Your Match” (MYM) tests. Shelter staff uses MYM to assess a number of factors in pet dogs. Things like food aggression, separation anxiety can be identified when the tests are done right. Those multicolored cards used as part of the MYM tests (usually posted in front of each kennel) can give you valuable clues about the dogs in their care. MYM cards say things like “I’m a Goofball” or “I’m a Couch Potato” or “I’m a Teacher’s Pet” and more. These cards represent the results of evaluations that have been done by shelter staff according to ASPCA testing standards.

Be sure to take advantage of the dedication and skill that shelter employees and volunteers possess. But a word of caution, be careful not to make the next mistake on our list:

Mistake #4: Listening Too Much to Shelter Staff
Ultimately, the decision to add a particular dog to your family is a decision that only you can make. Take good counsel from shelter staff but don’t delegate your decision to anyone else.

Mistake #5: Forgetting to Ask the Most Important Question
Selecting a dog is like any other decision. You start with a big list of choices and you narrow it down to a select few. In dog selection, the single most important factor in separating the wheat from the chaff is this: sociability. Measuring sociability is done by determining the dog’s desire to seek out the company of others and seeing how friendly and pleasant the dog is.

Every now and then one of our dog trainers will visit a client who has adopted a profoundly insecure, or unsociable, or sometimes even a downright nasty dog. When we ask them whether they received any input from shelter workers before deciding to take Cujo home with them, we usually get the same answer, “I didn’t ask.”

It’s YOUR JOB to ask the right questions. Be sure to ask this one: “Who are the most outgoing, easygoing, friendly dogs that are here?”  Put these dogs on your short list.

Here is a quick test you can do as you meet a few possible adoption candidate dogs: Caution – any dog, even the “friendliest” looking dog, can bite – do the following tests at your own risk. If at any point in the test you observe threatening or aggressive behavior, end the test and move on to the next dog. The more dogs you evaluate the better you will become at reading their behavior.
You will need to bring a tennis ball, a tug rope and some high-value food treats (e.g. hot dogs, liver treats, etc.). Don’t let the dog see or smell any of these items until it’s time.

A) APPROACH THE KENNEL.  

3 Points: The dog shows a friendly interest in you. He moves to the front of the cage. Open mouth, happy expression and a nice, low, sweeping wag of the tail, are all good signs. Jumping up on the cage door in a friendly way is another sign of sociability.
2 Points: A high “flag” with the tail, with short fast movement, means the dog is a little too stimulated by your arrival and is possibly warning you to back off.
1 Point: The dog completely ignores you.
0 Points: The dog cowers and moves away, showing fear; or
the dog lunges at the cage door, barks and/or snarls angrily, growls, or freezes up stiffly displaying the whites of his eyes.

B) ASK THE KENNEL WORKER TO BRING THE DOG TO THE SCREENING AREA. (SHELTERS USUALLY HAVE A ROOM OR AN OUTSIDE AREA SPECIFICALLY SET ASIDE FOR THESE MEETINGS.) ONCE INSIDE THIS PRIVATE SCREENING AREA, STAND ABOUT 4 FEET FROM THE DOG, FACING IN HIS DIRECTION BUT NOT LOOKING DIRECTLY AT HIM. DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THE DOG AND DO NOT TALK TO THE DOG. WAIT 30 SECONDS. DURING THESE 30 SECONDS WATCH FOR THE FOLLOWING: 

3 Points: The dog makes gentle physical contact with you. A sniff, a gentle rub or nudge to get your attention.
2 Points: The dog jumps up on you in a friendly way.
1 Point:    The dog ignores you.
0 Points:   The dog hides behind the kennel worker, or barks angrily at you, or makes “rude” physical contact with you (e.g. a hard nose bump, jumps up and mouths you, etc..)

IF THE DOG SCORES A “0” ON ANY OF THE FOLLOWING ITEMS, END THE TEST IMMEDIATELY.

 C) AFTER THE 30 SECONDS HAVE ELAPSED, STAND DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE DOG, BEND OVER SLIGHTLY AND MAKE DIRECT EYE CONTACT WITH THE DOG, SAYING NOTHING.

3 Points: A visibly friendly reaction such as a low tail wag, or a  move in order to get closer to you or a play bow (front end on floor, rear end in the air).
2 Points: Dog looks away.
1 Point:   Dog stares back at you, or barks at you.
0 Points: Angry or fearful reaction, e.g. tail tucked, or a high-held “flagging” tail, or a growl.

D) PET THE DOG 3 TIMES – FROM HIS NECK TO HIS TAIL – LONG, SLOW STROKES. PAUSE EXACTLY 2 SECONDS BETWEEN EACH STROKE.

3 Points: Dog moves closer to you or leans up against you between strokes.
2 Points: Dog ignores the petting but stays in place.
1 Point:   Dog gets excited, tail wags fast, jumps up to demand more attention.
0 Points: Dog stiffens and/or growls and/or moves away between strokes.

E) CROUCH DOWN AND PET THE DOG AGAIN, WHILE TALKING SOFTLY TO THE DOG. 

3 Points: Dog moves closer to you, tail wags.
2 Points: Dog ignores the hug but stays in place.
1 Point:   Dog gets excited, tail wags fast, and/or jumps up to demand more attention.
0 Points: Dog stiffens and/or growls and/or moves away.

F)    HANDLE THE DOG’S FRONT PAWS, GENTLY BUT FIRMLY, FOR ABOUT 5 SECONDS EACH. 

3 Points: The dog tolerates this.
0 Points: Stiffening, hackling, growling, barking, mouthing, snapping, excessive startling or fear.
Assuming he has made it this far without showing aggression or excessive nervousness or fear, your candidate dog is now ready to tell you little bit more about himself. That brings us to the final test items:

G) EVALUATE THE DOG’S PLAY DRIVE, PREY DRIVE AND FOOD DRIVE. 

Speak in a pleasant, high pitched voice and move around a bit as you produce the tennis ball. Toss it past him and see if he chases it. Does he ignore it? Does he get it and run away, or bring it back to you? Next, take out the tug rope and “tease” him a bit. See if he will play tug with you.   Your goal is to see if his drives match your wish list in terms of activity level. A dog that is “ball crazy” is probably going to enjoy chasing critters in the back yard (prey drive). A dog that will play tug with a total stranger (you) has pretty good play drive, so he may not be a couch potato if that’s what you’re looking for.

Finally, present a high value food treat such as a piece of hot dog, and ask the dog to sit. If he won’t take the treat he may have been be a bit more stressed by the preceding test items than you had thought. If his interest in you intensifies after he takes the treat, that’s good news – a dog who is very food motivated will be easier to train using positive rewards.

Total possible points = 3 (Score 1 point each for the “right” reaction, i.e. one that matches your desired activity level, on the ball and tug test. Score 1 point if he takes the food treat.)
Now, total all points scored!

SCORING GUIDE:

18 to 21 Points

Excellent

14 to 17 Points

Good

9 to 13 Points

Fair

Below 9

Poor

Regardless of the above total, the dog has not passed the test if:

  • The dog showed extreme fear (trembling, shaking, hiding, avoiding contact) at any point; OR
  • The dog behaved aggressively (growling, snarling, snapping, or prolonged stiffening) at any point;

OR

  • The dog showed little or no sociability (friendliness) during the test. This is an extremely important point. It might take a little while for some dogs to “warm up” but the dog must show some sociability by the end of the test. Look for an overall attitude of friendliness on the part of the dog. There should be a noticeable desire to connect with you. This is an extremely important characteristic. If the dog scored well numerically, but you’re not convinced that he showed sufficient sociability, come back in a day or so and re-test the dog from start to finish.

This may seem like a lot of work, but in the end you are deciding on adding a new member to your family.