How to Adopt a Dog From an Animal Shelter or Rescue Group

Get tips on how to find a good shelter or rescue group to help you adopt a great dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #71

In short, you’re not looking for any particular label on the shelter or rescue. Instead, you want to see people doing their best to figure out which dogs can safely be adopted and which dogs and people will suit each other well. While the dog’s in their care, they’ll work to keep her behaviorally healthy and maybe teach her manners, to make her even more welcome in her future home.

What Are Dog Behavior Evaluations?

Shelters and rescues should use formal behavior evaluations (sometimes called “temperament tests”) to judge which dogs can’t safely be adopted. Most groups use one of several well-known procedures, or a variation on them. (2)  Evaluators should be trained and the results of their assessments should periodically be compared against the results of other experienced evaluators. That helps prevent eccentric judgments.

How Dog Behavior Evaluations Work

Some aspects of an evaluation reflect normal human interaction with a dog. Others purposely try to push common dog buttons. For instance, an assessment might start with the evaluator just standing outside the dog’s kennel, looking at the dog. It’s worrisome if the dog reacts to such benign human behavior by throwing herself against the wire and snarling. Later steps involve various kinds of handling, such as wiping her paws and looking in her ears. How does she respond to a human who takes her by surprise? What happens if a human inflicts minor pain? Evaluators also try to learn whether the dog gets unmanageably excited or starts biting hard when people play with her.

Dog Evaluations Can Uncover Aggression

A biggie is the dog’s response to people touching him while he eats, sticking a (fake) hand in his food bowl, and trying to take away a supervaluable chew such as a pig ear. For me, this is often the heartbreaker. A dog may behave affectionately and sociably right up until that fake hand touches her bowl, and then--Cujo.

Many skeptics about behavior evaluation point out that shelter dogs are under stress and that former street dogs may have been chronically hungry for a time. The trouble is that any life includes stress. Sure, it’s possible that the dog who leaps at the fake hand and bites it five times wouldn’t so much as growl at a human messing with his food bowl if he were living in that human’s home. So why not place such a dog in an experienced home with no young children, and a rehabilitation plan? Because visitors happen, and kids running up to the dog on the street happen, and getting casual about prevention happens when weeks and months go by with no aggressive incidents. Also bear in mind the many dogs with no behavior problems, or only mild ones, still dying for lack of homes.

Dog Evaluations Aren’t Perfect

Of course, evaluations can’t guarantee that a dog won’t bite. One study found that they can miss territorial aggression, predatory aggression, and dog-dog aggression, in particular. (3) But in another study that compared assessment results with the dogs’ known histories, the two matched up pretty well. (4) The rate at which adopted dogs are returned for biting drops when evaluations are properly taught and used. (5) Using behavior as a yardstick beats making life-and-death decisions on the basis of how cute dogs are.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).