If you decide to get a dog from a rescue centre there’s a few things to bear in mind which will help you to choose the right dog for you.
Go to the rescue centre only after you have a clear idea of which physical characteristics and temperament traits you are looking for. You probably won’t find the perfect dog, but you will probably find one that is close to your ideal. It is for you to then decide if you can live with the character traits that are less than perfect and whether or not you can change the dog’s behaviour enough to fit your lifestyle. For example, it would not be a good idea to take a shy dog who is afraid of strangers into a lively household where he will be the centre of attention.
Also be aware of the strong emotions a place like a rescue centre can bring up in people. Who can resist a row of pitiful eyes and pleading faces? Even worse than that is the very persuasive argument (which rescue centres sometimes use) that unless you take a particular dog it will have to be put to sleep. This is emotional blackmail and it is wrong. You cannot save all the dogs and you would be doing the rescue world- not to mention the dog itself- a disservice by taking a dog which you would be forced to return simply because it does not fit your lifestyle. Be single minded in your search and leave your heart at home…if you can !
Before making any assessments on the dog find out if it has been in the kennels for at least 3 days. New dogs need to go through a settling period during which they will probably behave in a depressed or anxious manner. Only after they have adjusted to their new environment do they return to normal behaviour. But even after this adjustment to kennel life, it will not behave as he would in your home. Kennels can be hostile places regardless of how well the animals are looked after. Its confidence may be sapped by this environment and his behaviour may appear to be perfect when you meet him and even if you take him out for a short while. Rest assured that when he settles into his new home, old habits will resurface.
Bear in mind that there are things that you will not be able to tell from meeting and assessing the dog, like how good a traveller he is. But the assessment exercises will allow you to predict future behaviour- for example if he is very nervous and seems scared by many things, he may also be afraid of car travel.
Assessing a dog inside the kennel
Remember that when assessing any dog you will see only a brief glimpse of a complex animal’s character. Although assessments are useful and necessary in helping you choose a dog that is right for you, dogs do react to whatever is happening to them at the time. It may be tired, hungry, lonely, afraid, ill, bored etc.- all emotions which will affect his apparent behaviour. His behaviour towards you will also be different depending on your sex, and on whether or not you resemble someone it knew in its past. Here is a short checklist of the things you must take with you when you go to asses a dog:
- Titbits Toys (ball, tug-of-war toy, squeaky toy)
- A small towel
- The WHOLE family.
When in the kennels it is best to use the same assessment method on all the dogs you see. Their different reactions will help you to begin to ascertain their behaviour and to see differences, however slight, between them. These different reactions will help you to best assess the right dog for you. When you start, make sure that there are no distractions such as people walking past you or other dogs barking (a hard one, I know). Try the following tests out in the kennel where the dog sleeps or spends a lot of its time. Bear in mind that some immediate factors can affect your assessment of him. He may be hungry, looking forward to a walk, or maybe he has seen his favourite member of kennel staff. He may not pay you full attention and your assessment will be inaccurate. Remember to ensure the dog has been in the kennel for at least 3 days.
Reactions to strangers
The first time you see a dog, you will be a stranger to him, so this is the perfect opportunity to see how friendly he will be with strangers. Approach the dog in his kennel and crouch in front of the door with your body sideways on and your eyes averted. Watch the dog’s reactions.
- Does he approach wagging his tail in a friendly manner? A dog that does so is likely to do the same to guests and visitors in your home once he has settled in.
- Does he come forward slightly but looks hesitant and/or shy? A wary dog that looks friendly will probably be a very loyal watch-dog, but not one who would enjoy a busy household.
- Does he give low growls or warning barks and does he paw at the wire? A dog that demands attention by barking or pawing the wire has probably learned this at its previous home and will need careful retraining to eradicate this habit.
- If it looks safe to do so, put your fingers up against the bars – but not inside- to begin with. Does the dog press himself up against you so that he can be stroked? Dogs that enjoy being stroked and are not afraid of body contact will often shift sideways so they can press their whole body against the bars for maximum contact with you. Small dogs used to being picked up and cuddled often will bounce up and down at this point. More aloof dogs will keep their distance. This could be because of shyness, lack of motivation to be touched, or because they were not stroked much in the past.
- If the dog does not respond to you at this stage, and you want a dog that will enjoy lots of body contact, you may need to start looking at another dog. If the dog takes his time to trust you enough to come forward and be stroked you may have found a dog that will be loyal and trusting with its owner but aloof and reserved with strangers.
- At this stage you may want to judge how hand-shy the dog is. Dogs that have been smacked too much will take evasive actions or become aggressive at sudden hand movements. Raise your hand suddenly above the dog’s eye level. A dog who has not been mistreated will probably blink then wag his tail. A mistreated dog will probably cower with his eyes closed, move away or show aggression towards you.
- Dogs which shows aggression to sudden hand movements are probably not safe around children. If you do have children and the dog stiffens and stares when you raise your hand it may be worth repeating the movement several times to see if you can push it into aggression. Although it seems unfair to the dog, it would be even more unfair on your children if he were to bite them and had to be returned. Afterwards, talk to the dog kindly until he has relaxed and you have reassured him that your intentions are good. Do this only with dogs you are really interested in.
- Observe his reaction when you remove your hands and make eye contact with the dog. Does he stare? look away? retreat? In the dog’s language, prolonged staring can be a threat of intended aggression. A well-socialised dog who is unafraid and friendly will have learned that human staring is safe and a signal to approach. If he stares back, looks happy and wags his tail it is a sign that he will get on well with most people. Less well-socialised dogs will avoid direct eye contact by looking away. Some dogs may become aggressive and give a warning growl, or display some teeth. If he displays explosive anger, this dog is not for you.
- Prolonged eye contact will often evoke signs of appeasement and submission in the form of lip licking or paw raising. If he displays extreme submission such as rolling on his back, continuous paw movements or wriggling soon after you begin to stare he will probably have little confidence when dealing with difficult situations. Such a dog may be ideal for a family with children but it may not tolerate being isolated from other pack members for long.
- Dogs with a strong character will often stare back at you when stared at. Dobermanns and Rottweilers are known for this. This is an ideal characteristic for a guard dog. They will learn quickly and be quite independent but they may be more likely to react with aggression when seriously threatened. If you are not sure about their past history it is best to avoid these if you have children.
- Offer the dog a titbit. If he takes it and eats it greedily test him to see if he is easy to train. Hold another titbit just out of his reach and keep it still. He will probably sit down. As soon as he does something else to try to get at the titbit reward him immediately. Repeat. After a while you will notice that the dog has worked out exactly what he has to do to get the titbit. Very smart dogs learn just after a few attempts. Trainable dogs are also likely to be inventive about their behaviour to ensure their chances of getting the titbit.
- In the previous test you can also assess how active the dog is. If he constantly paces or jumps up and down constantly will probably like to keep active. If he has only enough energy to plod over to you and sit down he may like to just lie around all day and let you get on with your life. Also look out for his reactions towards other dogs in the kennel. What does he do when they bark or walk past him? If he behaves aggressively he may behave like this to other dogs in his environment once he settles in. Does he appear more interested in other dogs than in you? If so, he may have grown up with other dogs and it may be difficult to be a human-oriented dog.
Assessing a dog outside the kennel
Ask permission to take the dog outside the kennel to continue assessing him. Taking a dog you don’t know carries some potential risks so proceed with caution. Treat the dog with respect and handle him gently. Take things slow, don’t expect too much too quickly. Dogs can’t tell you if they are anxious or uncomfortable so watch out for tell-tale signs. If he growls or curls his lip it may signal an intention to bite. If this happens, stop what you are doing immediately. Don’t try to discipline the dog and return him to the kennel. Also look out for small signs such as frantic barking, uneasiness with a lead and collar, difficulty in calming him down. All of these signs will help you to better understand the dog you are assessing.
Look out for interaction with other dogs. Does he enjoy them or avoid them? What does he do when they bark at him? Is he aggressive towards other dogs or just the opposite?
Kennels can be very hostile places as far as dog interactions are concerned. Some dogs will invariably dislike some others and bark as they walk past. Many dogs can be pushed into self-defence mode in this environment. You will probably see your chosen dog behaving at his very worst due to the circumstances.
Take him out for a walk if they will let you. You can then see how he interacts with other dogs on walks.
- Is he aggressive?
- Does he ignore other dogs?
- Is he very keen to play with other dogs?
Aggression can be caused by fear. With patience, most dogs can be brought out of it but you may not have the time or the experience to embark on such a project.
When he is looking at another dog, see if you can distract him with a tasty titbit or a toy. If he can’t be distracted, walk away from the other dog and try again.
His level of distraction will tell you how difficult it will be for you to teach him to come back to you when you go out playing in the park and he is interested in other dogs.
- Let him exercise outside for awhile then take him to a quiet spot. Allow him to explore the area without the lead. Sit and wait for him to come to you to see how people oriented he is and how much he likes their company.
- Tease him excitedly with a toy and throw it to see his reaction. Does he rush after it? Does he pick it up and bring it back? If so, it could be his favourite game is chase and that he is not a possessive dog. Dogs like this make for very nice pets. But if he plays for a long time or is very possessive with the toy you need to know how prepared you are for his level of energy on a regular basis.
- What happens when you try to take the toy away from him? If he growls or goes rigid then stop. You are not familiar enough with this dog and unless you are experienced, it is best not to proceed.
- Does he like tug-of-war? If so it may indicate a strong character.
- Rush around and wave the toy wildly so as to get him excited. Does he play gently or roughly after this? This will tell you how careful with his teeth he is and how inhibited his bite might be. Useful to know if you have younger children.
- Let him play with a squeaky toy. Does he try to destroy it the more it squeaks? Dogs that enjoy “killing” a toy that squeaks often enjoy killing small animals because their predatory instinct is well defined- many hounds and terriers share this characteristic. If you have a cat at home or other small pets it may not be wise to choose him.
- If he will not play at all it could mean that he does not know how or that he is not relaxed enough. Allow him some more time to settle down and feel at ease.
- If he is still not playful watch his reaction to other dogs to see if he prefers their company to yours. Maybe he was raised with another dog and never learned to play with people. These dogs can still make good pets but it takes awhile to focus their attention towards people.
- Allow the dog to settle down after playing with him. Sit on the ground and allow him to come towards you. If he comes to you, stroke and handle him gently. If you think it is safe to do so, gently run your hands over his body and down to his tail and legs. Let him walk away and notice his reactions. Did he have uneasy reactions like pulling his ears back, lowering a still tail or yawning? If so, do not proceed.
- If he appears relaxed try restraining him and repeating the procedure. Finally try a gentle brushing of the coat then pick up each foot and wipe it with a towel. These procedures will allow you to see how much the dog has been handled in the past and how comfortable he is with it. You may also assess if he likes bodily contact.
- Dogs which do not enjoy handling and grooming can be brought round with care but they are not ideal to have around children unless they are very gentle and reserved.
- When the dog is standing, ask him to sit. How quickly did he respond? Did it take more than one repetition?
- If he responds quickly praise him and ask him to stand then sit once more. Did he sit willingly and quickly a second time? A third time? If he understands the command it is a sign of his willingness to obey. Many dogs will not respond well to someone they have yet to get to know. Easy-going and responsive ones will.
Before taking the dog out, ask the rescue centre staff about any information they may have regarding the previous owners. Make an estimate of how accurate and reliable this information is based on your knowledge of the dog thus far. Assessing a dog’s suitability around children is one of the most difficult things to do; that is why you need to rely on information from the previous owners.
- Ensure your children are present throughout the assessment process so that you may observe the dog’s reactions and friendliness towards them. Watching them play with toys together will help you to garner his suitability.
- If the grooming exercises went well, allow the children to try some gentle brushing and see how the dog responds.
- Allow the dog to approach and move away from the children as he pleases. An ideal family dog will tolerate all their attentions well and should appear to be enjoying them, but if you have any doubts it is best to trust your intuition. Sadly many dogs will have been teased into being aggressive to children.
- If you have children it is unwise to consider a stray dog, one on which there is no information or one known for being difficult around children. If you have older or teenage children you don’t need to be so careful. If you have no children living at home but you have grandchildren or children who visit you regularly try to get them to visit the rescue centre with you. If this is not possible then you have to rely on the information the kennel staff may have on the dog.
Because of the environment inside the kennel and the other animals within it, it may be quite hard to gage the dog’s behaviour towards small animals. The rescue centre may have a few stray cats around who are of the worldly-wise type which can be used to gauge the dog’s response. However these cats are used to dealing with unruly dogs and usually have so much confidence that new arrivals do not dare tackle them. But bear in mind that away from the centre, the dog that refused to give chase to a cat is the same one who will often delight in doing just that. You may only be able to walk away with a few impressions of the dog’s behaviour and excitability. If he pays a lot of attention to the centre cat and becomes very excited (hounds and terriers especially) it may be best to avoid him if you own cats or other small animals. If in doubt, ask the staff for advice.
- Once you have chosen your dog you want to see if he gets along with other dogs you may have. If there is a large open area at the rescue centre, get them together a few times before you decide to take the new dog home. That way the dogs will be more familiar with each other before one of them has to move into the other’s territory- the worst way to introduce 2 dogs is head to head in a small space!
- Walk them in a large, open space in parallel to each other and slightly apart. Keep walking so that the interest of the walk takes the pressure off the meeting.
- Allow them to get together and interact gradually- keep their leads as slack as possible so you are not influencing the body signals they give each other.
- If you are lucky they will play together but most dogs will ignore each other at this stage. Consider this as a successful meeting (especially if there is no fighting!) – they will need time to get to know each other.
- Bear in mind that success at this stage and subsequent meetings does not spell out a happy life together. Dogs need to establish a hierarchy which can be a constant source of friction between them. However, if they appear to be all right at this stage, chances are this will continue in the future.
In every rescue centre there are dogs who need experienced owners because of their difficult behaviour problems that will need to be overcome. It is possible to turn many of these dogs around and many experienced owners take pleasure in taking these dogs in. You would run the risk of being heart-broken if you took one in and failed and the dog has to be returned or put to sleep.
These dogs are not ideal for first time owners but the more experienced you are, the more difficult a case you can take on. It is a good idea to consider the people you have contact with and consult them before taking on a problem dog so as to have their agreement.