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Safe Dog Adoptions: Choosing A Shelter Pet

A blog post by Gia Savocchi, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant

Choosing Your New Rescue Dog

Choosing a rescue dog is an exciting process. You have decided that you are ready for a new family member, and are eagerly perusing rescue websites and local shelters to find that perfect match. However, things are not always what they seem. Safe dog adoptions are not always a given. Many rescue residents here on Long Island have long histories of behavioral issues, including severe aggression. These are issues that most pet owners are not equipped to live with.  In fact, many dogs are currently for adoption as friendly pets, when they have in reality bitten people or even killed other dogs. There are few laws governing animal shelters and rescues in our country, and so without direct oversight many rescues seek to put these dangerous dogs into our communities, onto an unsuspecting general public in the name of no-kill. In fact, this issue is epidemic across the state. How can you ensure that you are getting a rescue dog that will be safe for your family? Here are some quick tips!

Get Professional Guidance

Bring a Certified Trainer or Behavior Consultant who has shelter and evaluation experience with you to help with your final decision. Having someone with you who is an expert in animal behavior, and who will be able to objectively look at your potential dog’s behavior is one of the best things you can do. We all get caught up in the excitement of rescue dog adoption, and the sad stories about the dogs that we hear. Though it can be tempting just to make decisions based upon our initial feelings, a dog is a 10-17 year commitment. Making sure your rescue dog doesn’t have behavior issues is challenging when you aren’t a professional, which is why I recommend bringing in someone who is skilled for this. A trainer or behavior consultant can also help you to find the best fit for your family. Not all dogs, even the most friendly dog, are great for all families. Your behavior consultant will get to know your family very well, so they can help you to pick a dog that will be a joy to have around.

I provide this service on a limited basis on Long Island.

Choose a Responsible Rescue

I believe in supporting rescues that both save animals, and keep our communities safe. Animal shelters and rescues that advertise that they place aggressive rescue dogs are not shelters that I recommend that my clients choose pets from. This is because it shows not only a serious lack of ethics, but exposing friendly dogs to aggressive and dangerous dogs can cause them extreme stress, and can cause them to develop pathological levels of aggression as well. A good rescue places sociable, friendly dogs and takes pride in this. It isn’t ethical to place dangerous dogs into our communities. I also recommend that you ask your veterinarian, or other animal professionals who they recommend. Your veterinarian and trainers have seen a variety of dogs over the years, and should be able to tell you where the best are coming from.

rescue dog

Copy of the Behavior Evaluation

A behavioral evaluation is a necessity when choosing a pet. Many rescues do not complete behavioral assessments on their dogs, and even those that do often will not release a copy of the evaluation. It is your right to have the dogs entire behavior history and evaluation in your possession if you’d like to take them home. If the shelter becomes suspicious of your request, or balks, walk away! This important document gives you the full picture of your new dogs behavior, and helps your new trainer to see what issues must be worked on. If a shelter doesn’t wish to disclose the evaluation, that is a good indication that there is something to hide. All dogs can be evaluated, from the youngest puppies to the oldest senior pet. Evaluations give us valuable information on what kind of home will be appropriate. They also help us to see if a dog isn’t safe to go to a home. My favorite behavior evaluation is Sue Sternberg’s “Assess a Pet”.  

History Taking

It is very important to know the entire history of your new pet, if it is available. This includes the behavior evaluation, and also where your dog came from, how long they were in the shelter you wish to adopt from, and how long they were in a shelter before they came to your state. Dogs who have been in the shelter for a long time (longer than a few weeks) often have non-disclosed behavioral issues. You should ALWAYS ask if the dog has ever bitten or nipped anyone. As most adoptable dogs in New York are from other states and countries, you can even reach out to the original shelter they came from to ask for more information. It can be suspicious if a dog sits in a shelter for any length of time, as demand for shelter dogs is so high. You will want to know why that dog wasn’t adopted, and why they were in the shelter system for so long. Some important questions to ask are:

  • Is this dog’s breed a guess, or is it certain?
  • How long has this dog been in your shelter?
  • Is this dog local? If not, how long were they at the shelter partner that they came from?
  • Has the dog been in a foster home? How did they do in the foster home?
  • Has this dog shown any signs of aggression while at the vet?
  • Has this dog bitten anyone? Have they snapped a anyone?
  • Has this dog nipped anyone (nip is a euphemism for bite)?
  • Has the dog been adopted and returned? How many times and why?
  • How does the dog do in playgroups? Are they good with other dogs? 

If you notice some stipulations related to the adoption of the dog, you should ask further questions about those as well. Some examples would be:

  • Why is this dog suitable for adult-only homes?
  • What does “doesn’t like to share” look like?
  • Why does it say “only pet”?
  • What does “takes time to warm up to strangers” look like
  • Why does it state “owner experience required?”
  • What does “fearful in some situations” look like?

rescue dog

Red Flag Language

Shelters will often write very positive dog biographies to encourage you to choose a particular rescue dog. However, many rescues will allude to issues, albeit subtly. Unless you are someone looking for a project, and don’t have children or many guests, you will want to avoid dogs who “need to have you all to themselves” “don’t like to share” are “slow to warm up to strangers” or “need an experienced owner”. These are all phrases rescues will frequently use to describe a dog who is aggressive towards people. Take note of any phrases that seem off to you! Some red flag language I’ve seen over the years includes:

  • Kids 18+
  • Needs an Experienced Owner
  • Prefers your undivided attention
  • Doesn’t share his food
  • Doesn’t do well with small pets
  • Adults-only home
  • Shy with strangers

While sometimes a dog must be in an adults only home due to old age or fearful behavior, this phrase is often used because the dog has a serious behavioral issue. This is the same with prefers your undivided attention. While this can merely be a dog who doesn’t like other dogs particularly, this could also be a dog who is severely dog aggressive. 

Rescue Can Be Wonderful

I have two rescue dogs myself, and foster pets from time to time. My rescue dog Poppy is just about the nicest dog you could ever meet. We have many wonderful rescue organizations here on Long Island, and throughout the U.S. However, in my work as a behavior consultant I frequently see dogs who are dangerous, adopted out into unsuspecting homes. I see frequent accidents, including people injured (sometimes severely) and other family pets injured or even killed. I evaluate dogs who are returned to shelters, only to be put up for adoption once again as friendly and sociable, regardless of history or dangerous behavior. Though adopters occasionally do want a project dog that they can try to help, the vast majority of people want a safe and fun family dog. 

Feel free to reach out if you’d like help picking the right shelter dog for you!

About Me, The Writer, Gia:  I’m a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (among other things), and a little obsessed with dogs.  I’ve been working in the dog industry for 15 years now, and as a lifelong learner I’m continuously studying everything I can in order to better help my clients and their pets. I have three dogs, Poppy, Vera, and Levon and one parrot, Atlas.  If you’d like to learn more about me, click here

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