One way an individual can help reduce the number of dogs put to sleep for lack of homes is to adopt from a shelter. Doing this successfully depends on knowing what you need in a dog, and how to determine which dog at the shelter can fit your life. Picking a dog that fails in your home is no help to the dog overpopulation, and can end tragically for that dog.

What About a Puppy?

A shelter is the wrong place for a puppy. So many people are determined to get their dogs only as puppies that you can be assured someone will adopt the cute puppy in the shelter. Be wise, and don’t be that someone. Why?

The puppy in a shelter has been through physical, emotional and mental stress-just by the very fact of BEING in the shelter-that is likely to do lifelong damage. In the short term, the damage can hit you straight in the wallet, because the immune system of a puppy is not strong enough to deal with the communicable diseases in even the best of shelters. Many puppies die from things they’ve caught in the shelter. In the long term, you run a high risk of the puppy growing into a dog with severe temperament problems.

The genetics of a puppy in a shelter must be suspect. After all, responsible breeders don’t let their puppies go to shelters. Genetics have a huge effect on the temperament of the adult dog this puppy will become. Dog behavior is HUGELY influenced by the genetics that went into that dog, whether those genetics were carefully planned by a responsible breeder, or completely random.

It simply is not true-though a very popular notion among the uninformed-that a dog will turn out great if it is raised well. A dog’s temperament is limited by its genetics, no matter how good a job you might do in raising the dog. Dogs are much more the victims of their own instincts than humans are, and much less able to override their genetically-programmed behaviors.

When you adopt a puppy from an animal shelter, you are taking on an unknown responsibility. You don’t know what the adult dog’s temperament will be. You might know vaguely whether it’s likely to be a small dog or a large dog, but you can’t tell whether it will weigh 30 pounds or 90, and that’s a huge difference in the responsibility that will fall on the dog’s family. You don’t know what grooming the dog will require. You don’t know what medical conditions it is likely to inherit-many of which can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars to treat. You don’t know what aggression the dog will have at maturity toward other dogs, cats, children, strangers or you. You don’t know how driven the dog will be to jump or dig under a fence and leave your property. You don’t know how territorially aggressive the dog will be at your front door or your back fence. You don’t know whether the dog will be shy, fearful, easily over-stimulated, likely to bark excessively, highly active, agile vs. knocking over furniture indoors.

These are just some of the things you don’t know when trying to evaluate what responsibilities you would be taking on when adopting a puppy from a shelter. Dr. Nicholas Dodman has estimated 50% of the puppies in the United States are dead by the age of 2 years. Adopting a puppy in a situation where you do not know whether or not you are going to be able to handle that animal as an adult dog can put you on the wrong side of this awful statistic.

Adult Shelter Dogs: The Cream of the Crop

Adult dogs in the shelter are the ones to consider for adoption. In an adult dog, size and grooming needs are apparent with little or no guessing. Temperament tests are not foolproof, but they are a lot more accurate than trying to temperament-test a puppy of unknown genetics in a situation of high stress such as a shelter.

If you think a shelter doesn’t look stressful, try to look at it as a dog would. Actually, “looking” is not the main way a dog takes in information. Smell is number one with a dog. The smells of all the other dogs, the treatments that are being done if any, the waste products (even if it looks clean), the chemicals to try to keep down infections, are all overwhelming to a dog. The smell of fear on the other dogs must be one of the worst things. If dogs are euthanized there, the others can surely smell that, too.

Some of the purposes in life that adult dogs chosen from shelters have found have included police work, drug detection work, therapy dog work, circus dog work, work assisting a person who has a physical disability, and movie and television work. Clearly it is possible to get a truly fine dog from a shelter.

Your Homework

Before you go to the shelter, make a list of the breeds you will consider. This step may take a long time to do well. Make another list of the breeds you will not consider. Although you will not know for sure in many cases what breeds went into a particular dog, it’s much easier to guess with an adult dog than with a puppy. If a purebred of a particular breed does not fit your needs, don’t get a mix of that breed, either. You should expect that the most problematic behaviors of each breed will come out in the mix, as well as the medical problems common to that breed.

If you need help, definitely take a knowledgeable dog person with you. Many people would be thrilled to help a shelter dog find the right home. Find someone like this by calling behavior specialists and obedience instructors in your area. Ask your veterinarian to recommend reputable ones to call.

To learn about breeds, get on the Internet, consult your public library, and/or talk to people who are knowledgeable about various breeds-really do your homework! Most breed clubs have a website and people who will try hard to help you learn what you are trying to learn, to make a good choice. Responsible breeders are serious about helping dogs and mixes of find the right people to responsibly care for them. We all love to talk about dogs!

The book Choosing a Dog for Dummies, by Chris Walkowicz (or some other good reference book that tells a little about a lot of breeds) can give you ideas of which breeds to research. It could also be useful to take along to the shelter-but it’s no substitute for researching IN DEPTH the breeds that interest you. Some of the most important information about a breed is just too complicated to fit into a couple of pages in a book.

Call ahead to the shelter. Find out what days and hours you can view dogs to adopt, and get some idea of whether they might have the type of dog you’re seeking. Do not go from one shelter to another on the same day. Thoroughly wash your shoes, clothes, and self between one shelter and the next. Otherwise you could easily carry illness from one shelter to another. The stress the dogs are under makes them highly likely to catch things, and the puppies in particular can die.

Dogs under stress don’t give the same responses to behavior tests that the same dog would give months later after adapting to a new home. This is why it’s so important for you to take breed into consideration before you even narrow it down to certain dogs. Expect a Golden Retriever (or mix) to wind up exhibiting the most extreme behaviors of its breed after settling into your home, and expect the same of a Rottweiler or any another breed. Don’t expect a Rottweiler to act like a Golden Retriever-or a Golden Retriever to act like a Rottweiler!-after settling into your home, no matter how the dog may be behaving at the shelter.

Behaviors You Might See and What They Can Mean

First, remember how stressed these dogs are. They are typically exhausted, because they do not get nearly enough sleep. Many have been through their idea of hell. Don’t expect the activity level you see in any shelter dog to be normal for that dog. Like people, some dogs might respond to being overtired with hyperactivity. But more likely, the behavior you see in the shelter will be more subdued than is normal for that dog.

In other words, if you meet a year-old Labrador who doesn’t jump up on you, this does NOT mean the dog won’t jump up on people at your home within a few weeks or months! Without training, Labradors tend to jump up on people unless taught otherwise or unless they have such severe hip or knee problems that they can’t jump. Knowing the behavior and medical issues of the breed from having done your homework, you’re much better prepared when you actually visit the dogs and make a choice.

If you have children, take them to the shelter with you, making sure they understand that you will leave without a dog if you don’t find the right one. A calm response to each child by a dog might just mean the dog is too tired to care-keep that in mind! But a dog who shows fear or aggression toward one of your children will not be a good choice for your family. The reason to take all the kids is that some dogs will have a problem with only a certain age or only boys or only girls.

You will need to be sure you can control and protect your kids at the shelter, of course, so it’s possible you’ll need to take along more adult help. There should be someone competently controlling the dog and someone competently controlling the child.

If you walk up to or walk by a dog run and the dog is barking, look to see if you can discern a possible reason. Some dogs will bark to try to keep people away. Unless you are an expert handler, this is not the dog for you. Some dogs will actually bark to call you over! If you could live with silly barking, you may not want to rule out this dog. Look at the body language, see how the dog responds to you, and think about how the noise would affect you, your neighbors and your family. Certainly do not get this dog if you live in housing where you share a wall with another family, or if your dog will spend time in your fenced back yard without you. The same goes for a dog who is howling.

Experts often say not to look a dog in the eyes, but in this situation, do so. Blink your eyes at the dog-this takes away the direct threat. If you have cats, you’ve probably seen this gesture. If the dog casts its eyes downward when you make eye contact, that’s likely a submissive behavior, fine for a family dog. A dog who shows aggression when you make eye contact is not okay for a family dog. If the dog shows affection toward you when you make eye contact, that’s wonderful.

Arrange to be in an area with the dog away from other dogs. In this area, see if the dog will come to you. If so, great! If not, well, it depends on what the dog does instead. If it seems afraid to come, you should probably not take that dog. If it’s just too silly to come, you need to think about how serious you’re going to be in training.

This situation should make you pretty interesting to the dog, and if it doesn’t, that could indicate a dog who will need a lot of work in order to walk well on a leash and otherwise make a good companion. Let’s face it, though-all dogs need a lot of work! Still, it’s better if the dog shows a strong interest in you and wants to come to you when invited. Walk around and see if the dog follows you.

Try tossing something for the dog to chase. If the dog does run out to the item and pick it up, that’s a great sign of playfulness that you will probably be able to build on to use in training. You may not care about playfulness, though, if you’re looking for an extremely calm dog. By the same token, if you don’t plan to spend a great deal of time with the dog, you may not care as much about the dog’s interest in you. A dog who stays busy sniffing around the area might be satisfied doing the same at your home.

Pet the dog all over its body. See if the dog reacts negatively to being petted anywhere on the body. If so, you must expect this reaction will be much greater when the dog is rested and has adapted to your home. It may indicate a medical problem, too. Be very wary of adopting that dog, especially if you have children or tend to have a busy household with visitors.

If the dog is small, pick it up and see if it’s comfortable being held. Resistance to being held is not a good sign. Relaxing in your arms is an excellent sign.

Walk the dog around on a leash. Observe the dog’s reactions to startling things, such as loud noises or strange sights. Rule out a dog who reacts aggressively to these things unless you are a skilled handler. A dog who startles, recovers, and is willing to investigate the situation more closely-even if very cautiously-can be a good choice, providing there is no aggressive or panicked reaction when startled. Fear can later be expressed as aggression when the dog is more settled in your home or becomes more mature, so rule out a truly fearful dog, especially if you have children or regular visitors.

If you have other dogs, part of deciding what dog to consider adopting comes from the homework you’ve done before going to the shelter. You need to know whether your own dogs gets along with other dogs, and whether dogs of the breed(s) you are looking at tend to do okay with other dogs in the home. Choose a new dog of opposite sex from the dog you have. This has a much higher chance of peace, practically the only chance in some breeds. Ask shelter personnel if they can tell you anything about this dog’s ability to get along with other dogs. Inspect the dog for bite wounds, too.

If you have cats, ask the shelter how this dog reacts to cats. They may be willing to arrange a meeting with a cat, but keep in mind that just because the dog does okay with a cat at the shelter doesn’t mean it will be fine at home 6 months from now with your cat. Here again, you need to include safety with cats in your breed homework before going to the shelter. You will also need to carefully manage any new dog around your cat, at least at first.

Is There a Connection?

The chemistry between you and the dog can wind up making all the difference. There will be surprises. A dog from a shelter is likely to go through a respiratory infection and/or a skin problem on the way to fully recovering from this experience. The dog will need training and is likely to suffer from separation anxiety to some degree, which can result in destructive behavior in your home. The dog may be able to easily learn to rest calmly in a crate, or it may never be able to tolerate a crate.

The unknowns are many, no matter how carefully you try to choose. You don’t want to be one more step in this dog’s short journey to the wrong side of the 50% percent. You want to be the one who gives this dog lots more great years of life.

That chemistry, that affinity, that feeling between you and the dog can be the critical factor in making things work. Just make sure it’s mutual between you and the dog-as well as other family members-and not based on wishful thinking or sheer emotion. Going to a shelter to pick out a dog is a highly emotional experience. By doing your homework in advance and taking along an expert if possible, you can help assure that emotion won’t keep you from making a safe and satisfying choice.