How to Choose a Shelter Dog

When I was a kid, I finally talked my dad into letting me get a dog. Baron the Wonder Dog was my inseparable friend from age 10 to 20. When I set off for college, he went with me. We spent a miserably cold winter in Missoula, MT in 1978-79 and left there in March of ‘79. We spent our first night in Seattle at some friend’s house and at 5:30 a.m., Baron asked to go outside. I let him out, went to the bathroom myself, and when I opened the door to let him back in, he was not there. I searched for months and never found him.

Baron's beach holes made great BBQ pits

Rocks were great entertainment for Baron. He’d dig long canyons along which he advanced his pet rock

This led me to adopt a 6 month-old Shepherd-Lab whose owner had surrendered him at the Humane Society. “David Flemming” was 6 feet tall, balding, and wore a gray business suit. At least that’s what Buck said every time we encountered a man of that description.

Buck loved to ride in my VW Bus, but he had no idea how to keep his balance. When we took a turn, stopped, or accelerated, he gave gravity its pull. I taught him the words for the directions – “right,” “left,” “get up”’ and “whoa-up.” When we applied to the moving vehicle he quickly caught on to shifting his weight to counter gravity.

Your shelter dog will come with a history about which you can only guess. Did his owner take him everywhere? Was he left at home on a chain in the back yard? Is he housebroke? Does he like cats? Children? Other dogs?

Even his breeding may be a mystery. Is he a pedigreed dog? If so, what type of lines is he from? (Working? Sporting? Show? Backyard breeding? Etc.). If he’s a mutt, is there any telling what breed(s) he is? If so, this might give you some insights as to his aptitude for certain sports or a hint about his attitude toward people, animals and favorite activities.

This is not a reliable testament, however. For example, I met some people recently who own a lab-basset hound mix. He looks like a basset but has the lab temperament. In that mix, it’s the best of both of those two worlds, I’d say. A lab is one of the best dogs in the world for an all around family dog. A basset is a true hound—his nose leads the way and he’s blind to anything but the scent.

It’s difficult to assess the temperament or aptitude of a dog who is housed in a shelter. Some feel despondent as they sit waiting for their humans to return. They become depressed and hopeless. For others, the stress of the new surroundings and strange dogs makes them edgy or afraid. It is a rare dog that will display his true self in this stressful environment. I chose Buck because he was the only dog in the kennel sitting quietly and watching me with eyes that said, “you are the one to let me out of here.” I did not anticipate he had ulterior motives!

So how do you figure out whether or not this is the right dog for you?

Sometimes the shelter staff has spent some one-on-one time with the dog and can help you select a dog who is appropriate for your lifestyle. Sometimes they have information about what kind of home he came from and why he was surrendered. These details may serve to make you shy away from a certain dog or embrace him.

Usually there is not enough information for you to make an informed decision, however. In my opinion, if you are looking for a dog to help you meet a specific goal, then you are better off to begin with a puppy. But if you want a companion, and you are willing to allow the dog and the relationship to define your future, then a shelter dog will do quite nicely.

For example, some friends of mine adopted a little yellow dog from a shelter. He was around 6 months old and had a lot of fear and aggression issues. They took their time and within a year or so, had shaped him into a much more trusting, level-headed dog. He lived the next 14 years happily accompanying them on horseback, yachting and road trip outings.

The other people I mentioned in the previous post who adopted the purebred Cattle Dog, have nearly resolved his issues of aggression and are open to exploring sports at which he can excel and will love.

Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to adopting a shelter dog. You must learn who that dog is, help him overcome his deficiencies, and find ways to feed his soul with things that he loves to do.

This will change your life in ways you could not imagine. And most people will say that it is one of the best things that ever happened to them.

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