Photo credit: Michael Robinson-Chavez
Are you one of those humans that wants someone shadowing you all the time? Or do clingers get on your nerves? What about hair length? Are you into the hippie look or more enamored of baldness? Maybe you like to goof around and want a partner that thinks it’s funny, or maybe you’re quite the opposite and you need calm, serious reflection by your side. You know that picking a human partner for your life requires some thought and shared interests but do you put the same amount of thought into picking a canine partner? You should, because with a few (albeit significant!) differences, living with a dog can be like a marriage and the wrong choice can end in … the shelter!
My human’s son is looking into adopting a dog (yes! overpopulation leads to full shelters and the need for homes!) and that prompted her to write this post.The good news is that you can have “dates” with your dog as you would with friends or “more than friends,” and you can learn a lot about how well matched you are through careful observation. Whether you are going to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue, or buy one (just keep in mind that buying means there will be more breeding and not always responsibly so pick the breeder carefully!), ask to have some time alone with the dog because shelter environments especially can be chaotic and stressful. Are you at your best when you are anxious? Probably not and neither are the dogs stuck behind bars with a thousand barks and visitors cluttering their thoughts.
Once you get to a place where the two of you can interact with less distractions, let the dog sniff around. With over 200 million smell receptors in our noses, we need to sniff in order to get the morning’s news and know that all is well with the world! Once we’ve checked out the scene we can give you our full, undivided attention…or can we? Can you give us yours? That’s what it’s about: can we give each other what we need, are we a match.
To begin with, if you are the very active, sporty Human type, you’ll need to look for a canine partner that enjoys high levels of activity and constantly being outdoors. Not all of us do, believe it or not. And if you are a couch potato then clearly a dog that can’t stay still is not for you. It’s like the classic “girlfriend wants to got out every night while boyfriend wants to sit and play video games” situation; someone is going to end up in the dog house or get the boot! While every dog is an individual, there are some general characteristics that can tell you if a certain breed is for you, including simple things like size. If your family car is a Mini and you’re a family of five and don’t ever intend to upgrade to a bigger vehicle, don’t pick a Great Dane to be your dog and go everywhere with you! Likewise, if you don’t like to go out into nature, the nature-loving Husky is generally not you best choice and if you’re a push over, a working breed like a Doberman is typically going to sense that and want to take over the leadership vacuum. Knowing yourself is an important growth step for Humans and as it turns out, we dogs can help you with that! Be honest about who you are and what you like, and then let’s start dating.
From the book “Stormy Says: Let’s Talk! A kids’ guide to understanding dogs”
There are many good resources to start. You can check out Animal Planet’s Dog Breed Selector to see what general characteristics might be a match for you and then, with those guidelines in hand, you can start meeting individual dogs and asking “questions.” That’s right, we don’t use words but we can still communicate and our eyes and bodies can tell you plenty! Here’s a quick list of the “conversation” points my Human likes to have with dogs before she adopts and the best part of that is most of it is based on logic and your preferences:
1) How long it takes for the dog to pay attention to the Human. This is a test of sociability and it’s based on what you like and want in a partner. Do you want to be the center of your dog’s world or is an aloof or independent partner more attractive to you? After letting the dog “get his sniffs out,” see if he/she is interested in interacting with you and how much. Get his attention by calling his/her name (if he had it before the shelter and knows it) or by snapping fingers, kissing to him or slapping thighs; whatever works for the dog to look at you or come join you. See how long it takes and if he comes to you willingly and happy, with a wagging tail and open, relaxed mouth. The more interaction he/she gives you, the more sociable he/she is.
2) How does the dog react when you give eye contact? My Human prefers to use soft eyes (you know, a loving look) and see if the dog reacts in kind. If he/she reacts in fear or walks away, that may be a sign of anxiety/concern and it could express itself in anxious behaviors at home. Be sure you are prepared to work with those issues before committing to that dog because returning him/her later will only add to the anxiety and make him/her less adoptable in the future.
3) How does the dog feel about being petted in various places of the body, including the paws? Does the dog move closer, pull away, stand still, wag the tail, relax and open the mouth or stiffen? The reactions here are fairly self-explanatory because they mirror the reactions of Humans’ bodies to being touched.
4) What is the reaction to sudden movements and/or noises? Curious, fearful, defensive, aggressive? You can ask the shelter to allow you to bring an umbrella or cane or even a soda can with a few pennies in it. Move about normally with it (this is not about instilling panic and mistrust!) and see how the dog feels: does the dog panic, does he eventually recover, does he tentatively investigate? And how well do you think you can manage the reactions?
5) How does the dog react to an attempted hug? This one is a doozy because we dogs don’t really like to be hugged. Being approached from above and constricted is about dominance for us so most of us stiffen our bodies, close and tighten our mouths, lay our ears back and widen our pupils, all signs that we are not comfortable. But if there are going to be Humans around that are going to attempt to hug your dog (before you get a chance to educate them about it!) then at least make sure the dog is not going to snap because a dog that bites can have his days counted and it’s not fair if the Human started it! Get the shelter’s permission to attempt a hug if you know what you are doing or, even better, ask them to try it if they agree.
6) What is the reaction to being led on leash? If the dog is going to need some training to this Human device, it’s best to know ahead of time if you are equipped to provide that training with patience and skill.
7) What is the reaction to being presented a toy and/or food and to what degree does the dog attempt to guard it? This “question” should be asked by shelter personnel or with shelter permission only since, again, if the dog reacts aggressively due to resource guarding that’s a whole new can of worms.
From the book “Stormy Says: Let’s Talk! A kids’ guide to understanding dogs”
8) How does the dog lie down? Is it done readily and does the dog lie off the hip? Observe carefully because lying off the hip is a sign of relaxation and if the dog won’t do it in your presence or at any moment that you can observe, he/she may be very high strung or not completely relaxed around Humans and if you’re not ready to enter into that kind of relationship then you shouldn’t.
To learn more, sniff out TheFamilyDog.com to see how 77% of dog bites on children can be reduced and/or prevented through education and proper communication, and this page on choosing a shelter dog by Petfinder.com. This page on dog temperament at the Partnership for Animal Welfare will give you more information on how to get started at the shelter, as will this article on five essential temperament tests by Sarah Hodgson for the Huffington Post. And once you have done your preliminary work, keep learning because marriages take work and attention! To learn all you can about dog adoption, follow the paw prints of Wendy Diamond at AnimalFair.com and to know more about your dog’s thinking processes, join the fun and games at Dognition.com
There are several ways to get a “conversation” going and many good resources to check but the main thing is to use common sense and take your time. After all, when the shelter asks if you take this dog, you want to be able to say “I do” and mean it until death do you part.
P.S. (Post Snifftum): the more you learn…