How to Choose a Dog

By: Dr. William Fortney

Adopting a Dog From a Shelter

When you adopt a dog from your local animal shelter or humane society -- whether the dog you pick is a true "secondhand" pooch or a stray puppy -- the odds are you'll not only be gaining a fine companion, you'll be saving his life in the bargain.

The same rules of preparation apply to the mixed breed adopted from the shelter as the purebreed purchased from the breeder. Sit down and figure out exactly what you want -- and what you can handle -- in a dog. That way, when you go to the shelter, the staff will be able to direct you to the dogs who fit your needs, and you won't be overwhelmed by too many numbers. Before you go to the shelter, it's a good idea to have a family meeting and make an actual list of the coat type, size, color, and so on, that you agree on. It's very easy to get sidetracked when a couple of dozen dogs are yipping and pawing at you through the bars of their cages.


Next, everybody in the household should pile into the car for the ride to the shelter. On the way, review how the selection process works. You should call your local shelters first for details on their specific procedures, but you can probably count on something like this: First, walk through the shelter to look at all the dogs and get an idea of who's available. Next, walk through again. Take your time. Have family members write down individually the one or two dogs they'd pick to adopt. Finally, walk through one last time, looking at all the dogs who were selected and comparing them to the list to see if they meet the criteria. If a dog doesn't match your needs, mark him off the list. Take your list of finalists and ask a shelter employee for more information about them.

Shelter employees see the dogs every day and should be able to tell you about a dog's personality and habits. If a dog was turned in by his owners, the shelter probably has more detailed information about his health and personality than about a dog found as a stray. Often, secondhand shelter dogs come with important background information: whether they get along with children or other animals, if they prefer men or women, and the type of home the dog was used to. Matching the dog's previous experience to your current situation can help a lot. For instance, some dogs may have a difficult time fitting into a home with very young children unless they came from a family with children. Look for the same health clues you would if you were buying a puppy: clear eyes, no coughing or sneezing, firm stools. Ask if the dog has been spayed or neutered, dewormed, and vaccinated.

Once you've heard what shelter personnel have to say, ask to meet the dog or dogs left on the list so you can make your choice. Don't forget, a dog in a shelter is away from its family, maybe for the first time. The loss of his home and the unfamiliar surroundings of the shelter are bound to affect the dog's behavior. Often, shelter enclosures are small, with little room for the dog to walk around. It's natural for a dog in this situation to be frightened, depressed, or withdrawn, so take these things into account when you make your decision.

Arrange to take the dog into a visiting room or to an outdoor area so you can get to know each other on a one-on-one basis. In this setting, the dog may loosen up, giving you a truer picture of his personality. Walk him around on leash. Does he pay attention when you switch directions? A dog who is willing and attentive is likely to be easier to train.

Whether you choose a puppy or an adult, look for a dog who is healthy and responsive. If the dog is friendly in a shelter environment, he's likely to be friendly in your home, too. But remember, a confined dog wants out, and even a somewhat shy pooch can be very solicitous when you walk past his cage. Take your time. Your decision is an important one.

If you prefer to own that cute stray that keeps hanging around your apartment or home, it's important to do it the right way. Adopting a stray can be challenging but rewarding. In the next section we will review what you should do.