Wednesday, March 12, 2014


If you like the idea of saving a dog that has been abandoned or given up by his original human family, consider going to your local shelter (what used to be called the “dog pound”). Animal shelters are filled to bursting with “orphans,” and there are some wonderful mixed-breed dogs there (“Heinz dogs” they used to be called, when Heinz advertised its fifty-seven varieties). Since Labradors are the most popular dogs in America—twice as popular, in number, as the next most-owned breed—many of the mixed-breed dogs you meet will probably be some part Lab, which  can be a nice piece of any “combination dog.” Unfortunately there are also a disproportionate number of Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes in the shelters, because these volatile, powerful and dangerous dogs have often not been neutered and have been permitted to run free.
People may ask or you may wonder, “Why take on a problem dog—someone else’s problem?” The answer is that many of those dogs are not at fault and many of them have been abandoned because of changes or complications in their people’s lives. People change their minds about dogs when they find out how much trouble and work it is to raise one well. People get divorced. They move. They get sick. They have financial problems. Someone in the family becomes allergic. There are more reasons than you can think of that people no longer can care for their dogs—and many of them have nothing to do with the dog herself
Choosing a Good Animal Shelter
There are many versions of animal shelters—there’s the gloomy old run-down building and there’s the clean, new cheerful facility, but just as important is what the staff is like.
᾵ Are they pleasant and welcoming?
᾵ Does the staff or volunteers seem interested in helping you find a pet, or do they make you feel like you’re just interfering with their job?
᾵ Do they have a trainer/animal behaviorist who evaluates and socializes dogs to make them more adoptable?᾵ Is there some kind of veterinary care readily available?
᾵ Does the staff seem dedicated to the animals and interested in what they are doing, or do they seem burned-out and disinterested, waiting to punch a time clock?
᾵ If they give you a questionnaire and then ask you questions, do you feel you are being harshly judged or encouraged to adopt?
 In order to have a positive experience when making a decision, you need to feel you and the other humans are all on the same page: working to find a home for one of the orphan animals. If you feel you are being given the third degree, or the atmosphere is adversarial, you should feel free to leave and look for your dog elsewhere. And if you feel strongly enough about the treatment you received, consider telling the people at the shelter that one of their dogs has missed a chance at a loving home because they made you so uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll be more pleasant to the next person.
 ♦ Picking a Dog at the Shelter
Here’s a simple way to pick out a dog from all those heartbreaking faces “behind bars” at the shelter: walk past the rows of cages. Stop when you see a dog that appeals to you; if the dog comes up to the door to sniff your hand and greet you, that’s a good sign. Dogs locked in cages in a shelter are emotionally deprived, so when human contact is offered they should gravitate toward it. On the other hand, some dogs need more leeway in judging their caged response because they might have a personality that is more depressed by institutional living. If you were in their place, wouldn’t you like to get the benefit of the doubt?
Some dog trainers have their own “mini-tests” of shelter dogs, but they get complicated and require experienced judgment. Here is something you can try before you even take a dog out of her cage to get useful feedback: while speaking gently and encouragingly to the dog, move your hand back and forth slowly in front of her face. A well-socialized, outgoing dog will follow your hand. A dog that jumps or barks at you or retreats to the back of the cage is a dog with problems—and therefore not worth considering. That may sound too harsh as a rule of thumb—to eliminate a dog because of an apparent personality flaw (probably caused by whatever she’s already suffered in life)—but you need a firm resolve to find the best adoptable dog and enjoy a positive outcome. Many animal-lovers identify with the least lovable or most problematic candidates for adoption, but (being one myself!) I’d suggest that you not be so softhearted that you wind up soft-headed! Why create a nightmare for yourself or rob another more well-adjusted dog of a chance to share your life? For every damaged/neurotic/unpredictable dog, there are so many sweet-natured candidates who have had sad pasts of their own and are every bit as worthy—if not more so—of the wonderful life you are offering.

 ♦ Background Information about Adult Dogs
If a dog does have problems, you should know that most dog problems can be overcome (outside of serious aggression, which may result in having to put a dog to sleep). Most behavior problems in dogs are the result of mistakes by people—cruelty, neglect, ignorance and/or violence by the previous owner. But it may also be that those dogs were puppies who were not well-socialized by greedy, unscrupulous breeders—and that they were then bought by innocent people who did not know the responsibility involved in successfully raising a dog.
The current estimate is that three to four million dogs are euthanized every year in the United States. These dogs are often put to sleep after they are returned to the shelter more than once, having gone through the stress of not being able to adjust well to several homes—where those families suffered, too, trying to deal with the dog’s problems and then making the painful decision to give up
There are several areas of personality and behavior that it’s helpful to know about ahead of time when considering a dog past puppyhood. The more you know about a dog you are considering adopting, the better you can anticipate if she will be a good fit in your life. The only problem is that with most dogs that are up for adoption there is either no information, or the facts are unreliable.
Below is a quick assessment of some things to keep in mind when determining the reliability of whatever information may be available.

᾵ What behavior issues does the dog have?
᾵ How does he behave around other dogs?
᾵ Has he lived with or around cats (if applicable)?
᾵ How about his interaction with children? (This is good to know even if you have no kids, since children may be part of your extended family or come with visitors.)
᾵ What is his energy level?
᾵ Does he have any health problems—or if he’s a purebred, are there health issues specifically connected to that breed?

Copyright © Tracie Hotchner – Originally appeared in The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know by Tracie Hotchner

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