How to pick a shelter dog can be a tough question for parents. The experience can be wonderfully rewarding:
you teach your children compassion, avoid supporting irresponsible breeders and puppy mills, and perhaps even save a life. But, getting a great family dog from a shelter can be confusing and may even fill you with angst. This is natural. You want the right dog — loving, affectionate, well-behaved and safe. If you prepare yourself for looking for a dog, you may find the best dog of your life living behind a shelter cage door.
Some reminders before you get a Family Dog
- Its costs roughly $580 and $900 per year to care for a dog (ASPCA)
- Dogs and kids need to be supervised and watched when they are together!
- In the United States there and more than 4.5 million dog bites a year, and children are bitten most often. Many bites require hospitalization. Most bites are from family dogs. (NIH)
- Many insurance companies and landlords place restrictions on the type and size of dog they allow or charge extra if you have a dog. (personal experience!)
About Shelter Dogs
Dogs end up in the shelter for many reasons. Some were strays, but because of lack of tags or microchips, or lack of effort on the owners part, are not returned home. If the dog was a stray, little is known about the dog’s upbringing or habits. Others were good family dogs but were brought to the shelter because of a problem in the owner’s life — frequently a move, or the inability to afford care for the dog. Sometimes they are surrendered because of a human problem such as illness, death, or divorce. Sometimes they are given up simply because of the work and time involved in caring for a dog. In other cases a dog is brought in because of a behavior never addressed through training. None of these automatically makes a dog a bad dog or “damaged merchandise.” There are many good dogs in shelters.
Should you get a puppy or older dog?
Adult dogs (about two years and older) will generally chew less and be more calm than puppies. They may only need a house-training refresher if you are lucky. The temperaments of adult dogs are pretty much formed, so while you still need to teach new house habits and obedience to establish a harmonious life with the dog, you won’t need to work on early socialization and puppy behavior issues.
Puppies (up to about 18 months of age) should be expected to go through all of the puppy behaviors that people find troublesome: chewing, biting, digging, barking, digging and chasing. Very young puppies (under 6 months) will almost always need house training. What is so great about a very young puppy, apart from cute looks, is that you have a chance to work with the puppy on socialization to people, places and life experiences. You also get to teach them good habits from the start. That might sound fun and even give you some comfort, but it also takes work, time, and skill to give a dog a solid behavioral foundation.
Adolescent dogs (about 12-24 months old) are great because they still have many puppy traits. They are playful and fun and their temperments are still developing. But, they are also going through physical and brain changes. So, they test the rules, need to revisit basic manners, and need extra patience — just like human teens.
If you are thinking about a puppy, realize that all of the dogs that are in shelters were once cute small puppies. Their owners got them thinking they could raise a good dog and bond with them, but something went wrong! A puppy is a big challenge that is not for everyone.
Purebred or mixed breed?
Breed is only a small factor in determining a dog’s behavior and suitability for a family. Breed can predispose a dog to certain tendencies, but the behavior and temperament of the parents and the puppy’s early life experience are far more influential.
If you want a purebred dog, are patient in waiting to find one at a shelter, and are able to act quickly (they get adopted fast) you can find them at shelters. Sometimes multiple people will be interested in a purebred, and that can mean the shelter will charge more or even auction the dog. You might have better luck investigating breed-specific rescues.
When you go to a shelter to look at dogs, you will see that that in general they are assigned a breed. This is usually a guess made by the staff. However, research based on DNA shows that the breeds assigned to shelter dogs are frequently inaccurate. In general, to me if a dog looks like a herding dog it may tend to behave like one. If it looks like a hound it may tend to act like one, but there are no guarantees.
Pick a shelter dog: What size should you get?
For most people a dog’s size is just a matter of personal preference, but there are some factors to consider when you have kids.
A big dog can easily knock down a toddler with a playful jump or simply by turning around. If a big dog bites, it can do more damage. Small dogs, while they have less strength, are more likely to be picked up and mis-handled by children. This can make them fearful of children and being handled, and that can lead to problems. One of my clients wanted to correct their dog’s growling at the children when on the couch. Why was the otherwise friendly dog growling at the child? The child had been given the job of getting the dog off the couch because the puppy was too scared to jump down! The small child (about 4) was unable to do it well so he grabbed the puppy in an unstable way that scared the dog.
If you are a mother trying to go for a walk with kids and a dog, a large dog can be a lot to handle. Small dogs, though, get underfoot easily, and many people find it harder to train very small dogs to walk by their side.
I have a preference for medium-sized dogs (20-40 pounds) for families with small kids. But again, size is only one factor: the behavior and temperament of the dog are most important.
Picking a dog: your first visits to the shelter
Don’t take your children to the shelter right away. Scope out the dogs on your own first. Kids often fall in love with dogs that are not appropriate, often because of looks, and this will make it harder to pick the right dog.
When you go, look for dogs who want to meet you and who want to be touched. One way to tell is to stand sideways in front of the kennel. Kneel down and put your fingers at the kennel gate. Don’t put them in too far in! (All dogs can bite.) See if the dog approaches or leans up against that kennel door for touch — that is a good sign that the dog likes affection. Shy or fearful dogs that won’t come up from the back may be harder to integrate into a family with kids. (Some dogs are only fearful in the kennel so ask staff advice if you want more information on a particular dog.) Remember, it’s not necessarily bad if the dog jumps with excitement at the kennel door, but avoid dogs that bark aggressively or give you a hard stare.
Once you have seen a dog in its kennel and received good feedback on the dog from the staff and volunteers, ask staff and volunteers to help you meet a dog and assess the dog yourself. If at any point the growls, stiffens, gives other warning signs that you learn about, or makes you uncomfortable, do not proceed.
Picking a dog: the dog’s history and temperament
A good way to know if a dog likes children is to check on its history. Look for a dog with a positive history of living with children. That may be hard to do, as information about dogs in the shelters is often scant or incomplete, so be patient. When that information is lacking, you can ask shelter staff and volunteers for help. They may have seen the dog that interests you interact with children, and they may be able to give you an opinion.
Many shelters use evaluations called “temperament tests” to assess a dog’s energy level, confidence, sociability with people and other animals, and potential for aggression. Some shelters do these tests informally, and some have entire assessment programs. These tests
may include putting a fake hand in a dog’s food bowl to test for food guarding. They may also include handling tests to see how comfortable the dog is with touch, how the dog behaves with other dogs, and how the dog responds to toys and exciting movement and noise. Ask your shelter if any of these tests have been done with a dog that interests you.
Temperament tests are widely debated in the shelter community, and they are not definitive predictions of how a dog will behave once in a home. They do, however, provide information that may help you make your decision about the right dog for your family.
Picking a dog: learn to speak dog
Knowing when a dog is comfortable or nervous is an important part of owning a dog, especially a dog living with kids. Reading a dog’s emotional state will help you pick a dog that is comfortable with your family.
Dogs communicate their emotional state with their body language and behavior. Watch some videos and read some articles about dog communication before you get ANY dog and before you go to the shelter! (See suggested resources at the end of this article.)
Meeting a dog: Touch and Play
Staff and volunteers can help you meet a dog. This may be outside, or in a meeting room, or both. If the dog is outside after being cooped up for a while, he may be distracted at first. The whole shelter may be distracting to the dog, so be patient! After the dog eliminates and sniffs for a little while, happily and calmly attract the dog to you with some nice words and gently patting your legs. Offer the dog a treat when he gets to you and give some gentle petting. What you are looking for is a dog who seeks gentle, social contact from you. He will show this with a wiggly loose body, squinty or almond shaped eyes and a swaying tail as he approaches. If the dog sticks around with you and seeks affection that is good. Dogs that do not like touch are less likely to tolerate kids and their physical contact.
Ask the shelter staff or volunteer how the dog is with toys. If they tell you the dog is okay, you (or staff/volunteer) can bounce a ball or throw a toy, or hold it and wiggle it for the dog to take it from you. A dog that engages in play with you and a ball or toy can be good, because dogs that like toys can be trained with toys as rewards. If the dog ignores the toys, that is okay too. But, it’s not good if the dog plays with a lot of mouthiness or jumpiness, or if he can’t calm down. Many dogs learned to like a little keep away game, so that is not a big worry. However, if the dog freezes or growls when you try to take a toy, that is not good.
Pick a dog that LOVES adults and children
When you have found a good dog, it is time to bring in the kids to meet the dog. Before you go to the shelter, take a few moments to teach your kids how to pet a dog — not over the head but on the side of the neck or under the chin. They should not kiss or hug the dog! Practice with a stuffed dog before you go to the shelter if you can!
Then, go to the shelter and meet the dog(s) you like with the kids. The kids’ interaction should be supervised by you. You do not want to kids to scare or overwhelm the dog. First impressions matter! Invite the dog to come over and meet the children. If the dog readily comes over and shows the wiggly soft body and desire for affection that you have learned to recognize, that is good. If the kids are old enough, they can toss or feed the dog a treat. If when the kids are petting the dog, the dog leaves quickly for no apparent reason, or closes his previously relaxed mouth, pants nervously, or stiffens his body, this dog may be uncomfortable with the kids and may not be the right dog for your family.
Other Good Traits for a Family Dog:
Settle down. For kids, I like dogs that settle down quickly after play and that do not get too hyped up by things like toys. Dogs that get overly excited quickly by a squeaky toy, or when you run by them and do not calm down are probably not a good match for small kids who will likely make high-pitched noises and dart around the house.
Impulse control. When kids are around, I especially like dogs that show impulse control around things that are exciting like food, toys, and other dogs.
Do I matter to you? I like dogs that are interested in me: they want to work for me and show it by gently asking for petting and treats. Dogs that ask for treats and toys by sitting are even better. I like it when they pay attention to my voice when I speak sweetly, and when they glance at me from time to time in a nice way with soft eyes. But… many great dogs at the shelter do not already know how to do these things! If you are willing to invest time and energy you can train these behaviors, but its nice if some of these are already in place.
How to Avoid A Bad Outcome with Your New Shelter Dog
If you have kids and are getting a dog, its worth asking yourself if you expect other lifestyle changes in the coming years. It’s not uncommon for young growing families to move around, and so its worth considering getting a dog that will be accepted in a new place of residence. Research shows that moving and landlord issues are among the top reasons why dogs are relinquished to shelters. You can spare your children the heartache of losing a beloved pet if you get a breed and size of dog that you can move with if that is in your future. Another common characteristic of dogs relinquished to shelters is lack of training: train your dog and you will be more likely to bond with your dog and have a well-behaved dog. All these mean you will be less likely to face this type of loss. If you educate yourself enlist the help of a certified trainer when you get the dog, or as soon as you have questions or trouble, you will most likely avoid problems and have a great dog for your family.
Resources for before and after you adopt for your family
And the best guide out there for someone adopting a shelter dog including how to bring it home and how to manage your first few weeks of life is the book Love Has No Age Limit by Patricia McConnell. Its a cheap, fast, easy read or download. The ASPCA also has a great website with tips.
Body language videos
From Doggone Safe –
From The Family Dog –
Many thanks to Sue Sternberg, ASPCA, Patricia McConnell, and the many shelter staff and volunteers who have taught us so much about successful dog adoption.