The holiday season is upon us, which means men, women, moms and dads are in the market for cuddly companions. Thankfully, when looking for a new dog or cat, many of them will turn to America’s animal shelters.
The Humane Society estimates that about 6 million to 8 million animals enter those shelters each year. About half are adopted. The stakes are high for these animals. But they’re also high for the people who have to choose just one. How do you do it?
I talked to three people last week who had adopted dogs from a shelter. One said their dog has bitten eight people in as many months. The other said they’ve only had the dog one day and he has already growled at one of their children. And the third wrote me the following letter:
“I am fostering this dog deemed unadoptable. ‘Alvin,’ an adorable Cairn terrier-Schnauzer mix, had been at the shelter for six months. He was deemed unadoptable after an attempt to introduce him to my dog.
“The shelter asked me to foster Alvin or he would be destroyed. We have come a long way, but we still have a biting history and ongoing issues. The shelter wants a decision from me on whether I will keep him or return him to be put down.
“I am desperate to find a sanctuary or a professional to help him or help me help him. He has bitten everyone in the family so far. But it is bizarre how loving and sweet he is 99.9 percent of the time. I want to give him every possible chance before giving up on him. He was obviously abused and abandoned. He has fear-based aggression and dog aggression, and he is unbalanced. Our family has been working with him extensively since April. If you could contact me and help in some way, we would be forever grateful.”
The problem, as I see it, is all too common: People buy the outside of the dog without knowing the inside.
This person wants desperately to save a dog’s life, even at the risk of her own family. In the meantime, though, there are up to 7,999,999 other animals who also need homes, whose lives are also at risk. And the vast, vast majority of them are not biters.
At the same time, shelters are not Home Depot, and a dog is not a lamp. The idea is to adopt the dog — not take him home for a test run and then return him if it doesn’t work out. Being adopted and then returned is not only hard on the person; it’s a black mark against the dog. In many shelters, a dog can only be returned so many times before he is deemed unadoptable. So it’s that much more important to take the time to ensure you are bringing home the right dog for you.
How do you know if he’s the right dog?
In the animal behavior and dog training worlds, there are tests professionals use to get to know who a dog is on the inside. Personality tests reveal whether a dog is shy, responsive, fearful, alert, calm, high energy or aggressive. Pain tolerance tests alert you to any areas on the dog’s body that are sensitive and may provoke a response. There are also hand tests and noise tests to determine other idiosyncrasies.
Some trainers or animal behaviorists can be enlisted for a fee to come with you to a shelter and test several dogs on your behalf. Or you can read more about how to administer these tests in my book “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things.” At the very least, though, spend a couple of hours with several dogs before you take one home. As my good friend Mordecai Siegal used to say, this is the one time you get to pick your relative!
Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at the Creators Syndicate Website at creators.com, and visit him at unclematty.com. Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at PO Box 3300, Diamond Springs 95619.