There are a lot of different trainers or behaviorists who claim to have the only right answer on how to evaluate dogs coming into or leaving shelters. I am far less than convinced. I think that the majority of dogs are, or can be, normal and stable, and asking them to perform well when they are in an impossibly stressful and heartbreaking situation is very foolish.
Another way of saying this is that I have never, EVER, found a second- or more-owner dog to be “as advertised.” When I have reclaimed puppies (now adult dogs) of my breeding, the dire behaviors the owners said were taking place never materialized. And, conversely, dogs that have been “advertised” as perfect angels are rarely so perfect.
So take this with a grain of salt, and realize that training, socialization, and bonding change things a huge amount. This is a list of general rules, with the goal that, as I said in the last blog post, you’ll follow to the extent that you don’t have the tools, determination, and risk tolerance that I or another dog-obsessed person might have.
The first step is PLANNING. If you know you don’t want a list of breeds (for example, you have two pet rabbits so you cannot adopt a beagle or another rabbit-sensitized breed) or you do want another list of breeds (non- or low-shedding, or a certain size), stick to that list. There was a reason you made it, and whether you adopt today or adopt a month from now you’re still saving a dog. You should never feel guilty that you didn’t take a dog who is there at this minute, or even a dog who is at risk for being killed. Always remember that heaven is better than a bad home. Don’t be a bad home.
So be choosy and quickly eliminate from consideration those breeds, sizes, types, etc. that you know you cannot adequately provide for.
Second, you want to evaluate body language. This comes the closest to what Cesar Millan calls “energy.” I appreciate his point of view, and I think it’s shared by those who are extremely experienced and have been with dogs for decades. The whole picture–of body language, of posture, of response, of movement–kind of swirls around and you get an impression of the “energy” or “vibe” of the dog. Unfortunately, the novice adopter is rarely that savvy. You need more concrete things to look for.
A dog that is stressed makes a “C.” The tail is down. The back is rounded. The head points to the floor. THIS CAN BE SUBTLE. A stressed dog moves into pressure; he or she is usually at the back of the kennel or pressed against a wall or near a wall. Stressed dogs bark “woo wooooo”–even if the bark starts with a hard sound, you’ll hear the woooo as a high note in the bark pattern.
A dog who is inclined to be confident and perhaps even dominant makes a “U.” The head is up, tail is up, ears are up. The dog moves strongly toward the stressor; these are the dogs crashing into the front of the kennel. The dog who is inclined to move toward the stress will “bow” on his front legs as he barks, but it is not the ears-back soft-tail play bow. It’s a bow with head up and ears forward and tail high.
Generally both of these dogs are going to require a lot more intervention on your part. Are they bad dogs? Absolutely not. Should they be euthanized? No. But they need owners who will commit to helping them become calm and secure. If you’re not that owner, move on.
Look for a dog who is as close to a horizontal line, or perhaps a minor head lift, as you can. A neutral, sweeping tail (wagging from side to side somewhere between the level of the back and the level of the hocks) is friendly and a very good sign. Look for a dog who engages his or her nose, who wants to investigate you with the nose. Look for curiosity. A paw up on the door to get closer to you is fine; crashing into the door repeatedly is not. Barking that is an uncomplicated woof, with no high or harsh sounds, is better than the bark that goes up an octave or down an octave.
I personally love to see a puppy make a submissive move. So if I am standing next to the kennel he is up on the door sniffing, but when I bend down and look at him he drops down and sits, or even sits and then raises one leg and exposes his belly, I think this is a good sign (I would be a little more concerned if he dropped completely and looked terrified, but the leg lift while sitting or standing is normal “I am such a cute puppy; I am no threat” behavior).
Sometimes you need to just sit by the kennel or crate for a while to see what the dog is really going to do. First impressions can be misleading. So give the dog at least 30 seconds to engage his nose and put his tail down, or to come investigate you if she’s scared.
Third: once you have a good impression about a dog, ask the rescue or shelter volunteer (or foster parent) to demonstrate for you that the dog can accept normal handling. The reason I don’t want YOU to do those things is because you’re a complete stranger. The dog is more likely to react badly, or, ironically, a lot more likely to freeze up and seem to be acting well.
You don’t want to be perceived as accusing them of lying about the dog–and this is also a great way to get a basic dog-care education. So word this very positively. Ask them to show you how to brush the dog, how to take care of his ears, how to clip his toenails, how to check for burrs, how to check a limping dog’s feet. Play the dumb-but-kind card (or BE dumb but kind). “Wow, I never knew that! Can you show me exactly where I should be putting the ear cleaning solution?” “You know, I always feel bad when dogs get scared about their nails. Can you show me how to gently clip them?” “Can we go for a little walk with him so you can tell me more about him?” You want to see the dog reacting to hands on ears, feet, nails, tail, belly, and grooming. You want to see how the dog reacts when someone grabs his collar to get a leash on.
The dog does not have to be perfect. But if the dog tries to take the person’s arm off, you need to know whether or not you’re ready to take on that kind of behavior. GOOD DOGS REACT BADLY SOMETIMES. Fear does a real hack job on behavior. Please don’t interpret me as saying that you shouldn’t ever take a dog who hates having her nails done. This is information-gathering, and the picture you are building is the important thing.
Remember, be wise and considered. There are other dogs out there, dogs who need to be rescued just as badly as this one does. Try to get a complete picture of a dog, be realistic (hopeful, but realistic) about what needs you can meet and what behaviors you can solve. Don’t panic, but don’t be unrealistic. There IS a perfect match out there.
One final note, and this is really important. DO NOT BE AGEIST. There is no magic about puppies. Sometimes–maybe even often–the best match is a dog in her sane and healthy middle years, or even a senior citizen. The right match is everything. Age, size, even breed (as important as I do think it is) are always trumped by the personality of the individual dog and by your ability to match her needs with your home and your commitment to her.