Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Adopting from a shelter, Part I: Go in with a plan!

You have finally made the decision.  You're going to get a dog!  The first place you head out to is the local shelter and there you are confronted by dogs of all sizes and shapes.  

A tiny older Chihuahua huddles in the back of his kennel, looking up at you with big eyes.  "That one!" you think.  "I would love a small lap dog."

In the next kennel, a young pit bull jumps up against the bars when you get close, his whole body wiggling with energy, his tail going a mile a minute, flashing you that great big bully smile.  "That one!" you think.  "I love his energy.  I'd love to come home to that sort of excitement."

In the next kennel, a small Border collie mix is turning in circles, barking madly.  She hasn't even noticed your arrival.  "That one!" you think.  "She has so much energy and she's beautiful!"

In a kennel further down sits an old Lab, her muzzle grey, her eyes rheumy.  "That one!" you think.  "She's so sad.  She needs me."

Each of those faces, so very different from one another, are just some of the dogs you're likely to come across in a shelter.  There are dogs of every size, breed, and mix in shelters in America.  There are puppies, adults, and seniors alike, all looking for a great new home, all hoping you're going to be the one to take them home and love them for the remainder of their lives, whether it's 16 years or 6 months.

I will say this about shelters:  It is very easy to fall in love there.  But it is also very easy to fall in love with the wrong dog.

The wrong dog? you ask.  Is that possible?  How can any of those dogs be the wrong dog?  

According to the ASPCA, "More than 20 percent of people who leave dogs in shelters adopted them from a shelter."   2 out of every 10 dogs left at a shelter were adopted from a shelter.  Obviously some families believe they are the "wrong dog" and return them to the shelter.

So the question is, how do you walk into a shelter and find the right dog?

When I was looking for a dog I used an idea obtained from a counselor who worked with people trying to find out why they hadn't found "Mr./Mrs. Right."  I found the idea worked just as well when looking for a dog as it did for a life partner of the human variety.

Take out a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns:

1. Things I absolutely must have in a dog.
2. Things I absolutely cannot deal with in a dog.
3. Things I would like/would not like but can bend on.

Items that go into these lists can include looks (size, coat color, coat length, etc.), breed or breed mixture, temperament (mellow, energetic, friendly, aloof, etc..), behavioral issues (fear, fear aggression, separation anxiety, jumping, mouthing, etc.), exercise requirements, animals or people the dog needs to be good with (good with children, other dogs, cats, etc.), medical issues (deafness, blindness, hip or elbow problems, diabetes, etc.), and anything else you consider to be pertinent to your life.

Once you begin to outline what you think the perfect dog for you and your family is, you'll have a much clearer picture of what you need and want.  Finding a dog to meet your needs if you are overly specific may be difficult (though not impossible), so think hard about what you absolutely must have or must not have before putting them in those categories.

When you go into the shelter with this list in hand and talk to the workers about the dogs in the shelter, you may be less likely to go home with that 80 pound Shepherd mix when you really wanted a 10 pound lap dog.

In the next blog post, I will offer up my original list and let you see how it matches up with the dog I ultimately ended up with.

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