Phase 3: Meet the Canine Candidates

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Excerpt  from Dog Training: A Lifelong Guide Training Your Dog

Once you arrive at the shelter, go in with a high-standard attitude. Never cut any dog a break, and don’t make excuses for undesired—especially aggressive—behaviors. If a dog growls or lunges at you, even once, walk away. Also, rule out any dog who is unable to calm down after the first minute of meeting you. “Some call this approach tough love,” says Sternberg. “I call it finding a safe match.” Limit your attention to dogs who are six months of age or older. You will be able to gain a better picture of a dog’s true temperament once he has completed puppy hood as many fearful behaviors or dominant issues don’t surface until a dog is six months or older.

Not every dog comes with a complete history. Unfortunately, many dogs are picked up as strays, their backgrounds remaining mysteries. So, obtain as much factual information from the shelter staff as possible regarding the dog’s age, breed or mix, and gender. Ask if the dog has bitten or nipped anyone before. If he has, absolutely do not adopt this dog, stresses Sternberg. If the dog was a family pet, ask the shelter staff why the dog was surrendered. But be careful, often surrender-owner history can be full of euphemisms and actually steer you wrong. So often the dog that is turned in due to “allergies” or because the family is “moving” is actually a dog with an aggression problem, which is why evaluating the dogs temperament is so important.

Evaluating a shelter dog’s temperament—or any dog that you plan to adopt—can be tricky and there are no absolute guarantees that a dog will always behave kindly in any situation. Dogs, just like people, can react differently to different stresses. You can, however, improve your odds of making a good selection by using the following sociability test.

Twelve-Step Sociability Test
1. Walk casually through the entire shelter, taking note not to ignore the dogs in the back of the shelter. Don’t be influenced by a dog’s size, breed, age, or markings. Only focus on his behavior and personality. Look at every dog, scratching off any dog from your list of possibilities who refuses to approach the front of the cage to greet you, lunges at you, bares his teeth, or won’t stop barking and jumping, even to greet you.

2. Approach all dogs who readily come to the front of the cage to greet you. Smile, give a little sweet talk, and extend your hand. The ideal dog will jump up in a friendly manner, trying to sniff or lick your hand. Look for a dog displaying slightly squinty eyes, a full circular wag, or one who places the side of his body against the front of the cage to give you as much of his body to pet as possible. These are all friendly signs.

3. Narrow down your candidates to two or three. Ask the shelter worker if you can interact with each dog—one at a time—in a get-acquainted room, a room that is quiet and free from as many distractions as possible so that you and the dog can focus on getting to know each other.

4. Enter the room first and remain standing. When the dog enters, ignore him for a full two minutes. Within two minutes or less, a truly friendly dog will nudge you or gently paw you to gain your attention. If the dog ignores you, heads for the door, or is so distracted by the indoor environment that he never focuses on you, don’t adopt him. There is no such thing as a sweet, aloof dog.

5. Next, sit down in a chair and ignore the dog for another two minutes. The best candidates will come right over and try to nuzzle next to you, sit between your legs, rub up against you, or even try to join you in the chair. Rule out any dog who continues to sniff the environment and acts like you don’t exist. And disqualify any dog who jumps up on your lap with his paws simply to get a better view of things. This dog is “using” you for his own gain—a better perch.

6. Stand up and without saying a word, slowly stroke the dog from the back of his neck to the base of his tail. Pause and repeat the stroking motions two more times. By pausing in between strokes, you are giving the dog the opportunity to predict what will happen next and the choice to accept or avoid your stroking. An adoptable dog should crave attention, wanting to be touched. He should come closer, perhaps even stand on his tippy toes or turn around to get closer to you. You may notice his ears relax and that he is trying to make soft eye contact with you. Disregard any dog who stiffens his muscles, jerks, stops wagging his tail, or backpedals away from you when being touched.

7. Sit down and call the dog over to you. He should respond immediately. Spend twenty seconds sweet talking, petting, and engaging in affectionate interaction with the dog. An ideal dog will be calmed by your touch and respond with gentle acceptance. Rule out an overly excited or highly anxious dog, a dog displaying dilated pupils, a dog with his tail very high over his back, or any dog trying to mouth your hand. These are signs of dominance aggression or fearfulness.

8. Perform this next step only if you are confident that the dog candidate is calm and not aggressive. Test the dog’s level of tolerance by examining his teeth, five times for five seconds apiece. This step is necessary to see how tolerant and easygoing the dog will be when you make him do something that he doesn’t necessarily want to do. Do not perform this next step until the previous steps have indicated, without hesitation, that the dog has been very social and affectionate with you. Place one hand over the top of the dog’s muzzle and the other hand under his chin. Part the dog’s lips to expose the front and side teeth on one side of his mouth. The dog’s mouth should remain closed unless he is heavily panting. Count slowly to five and watch the dog’s reaction. Look for a dog that doesn’t try to get away from you. The best candidate will try to get even closer or snuggle up against you. Stop the mouth exam if the dog becomes mouthy, growls, snarls, or will simply not tolerate having his teeth examined five times in a row.

9. To test the dog for overly protective feelings about food or toys, have him take a medium to large biscuit out of your hand, following him if he moves to eat it. The best dog will settle at your feet or stay by your side while munching the snack, increasing his tail wagging the closer you get, or drop his toy to say hello if you call him over. The worst candidates are those who growl or stare at you through the corner of their eyes in a defensive posture.

10. Once the dog passes the biscuit test, it’s time to further determine the food-guarding potential of the dog. Empty an entire can of cat food on a plate (cat food is full of aroma and definitely a top treat among dogs). While he is eating, walk over, praise him, and watch his body language. If the dog tenses or growls with you nearby, he has flunked. If he eats faster, wags his tail, stops to greet you, or welcomes your stroking, he has high sociability. While he is eating, slowly move your hand toward his bowl, and then, before actually getting too close, pull back sharply as if scared. Repeat three times. If this elicits any growling, hard staring, or snapping, or if it causes the dog to move to block you from the bowl, he has flunked.

11. Head outside with the dog on a leash. After five minutes of allowing the dog to get used to the area, go to the bathroom, and burn off some energy, you’re ready to test his play and prey responses. Take a soft cloth toy or rope toy. Look for a dog who engages in play or is difficult to engage in play but plays lightly and gently. Stop playing and place the toy out of the dog’s reach. An adoptable dog should be able to forget about the toy within thirty seconds and be able to reengage in petting and focus on you. Don’t choose a dog who growls, plays intensely or furiously, whines, or refuses to share his toy during playtime.

12. Finish the adoption test by interrupting the dog from sniffing about by clapping your hands together to make a loud sound. If the dog is sniffing an object outdoors, sharply clap your hands once from behind the dog, and yell, “Hey!" This step helps you gain a better understanding as to how responsive this dog will be to your voice. An emotionally sensitive dog will react to your raised voice and sharp sounds by stopping the behavior immediately and turning toward you with ears back and soft, squinty eyes. He also may nudge you, trying to make gentle eye contact or sit tucked in between your legs for acceptance. These dogs are generally easier to live with and train. An aggressive dog may turn around and growl or snap at you. Stay away from adopting a dog who ignores you.

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Give us your opinion Give us your opinion on Phase 3: Meet the Canine Candidates

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larry   stephenson, VA

1/1/2010 7:25:20 AM

I felt sorry for a dog who was totally scared but got used to me. Now I got home, only problem I have he gets aggressive towards people he does not know. He loves toys, chases them and bring them back.

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Jill   Boynton Beach, FL

3/25/2008 4:12:19 PM

Step 4 is not necessarily true. Our dog was aloof when we first brought him home for the first two days. He also didn't seem to know what he was supposed to do with his toys. Now, 3 1/2 weeks later, he likes nothing better than having us throw his toys for him to chase, climbing up in your lap to be pet, and rolling over for belly rubs.

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