October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month

By KONG Guest Blogger, Michael Baugh

Any month could be Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month. It just so happens it was October when I adopted both of my dogs. Stella, the retriever mix, was just over 4 months old. She came from the Houston SPCA. A year later Stewie came along, a young adult Chihuahua mix who was dodging cars in a rain storm (much worse off than if he’d actually made it to a shelter).

Stella and Stewie

Some folks will say adopting a dog like Stella or Stewie comes with risks. The dog may have behavior problems. Some shelter dogs may even be sick. Maybe, but most shelters these days work very hard to make sure adopting families don’t get in over their head. The best ones have vets on staff and behavior experts who get to know the dogs who are up for adoption. Of course, there are also some things you can do to make sure you find the dog who is right for you.

  1. Adopt for personality, not looks. Pick a dog who seems to be a good fit for who you are and your lifestyle. Some shelters categorize their dogs based on personality to help you find the best match.
  2. Take the time to get to know your prospective dog. You’re about to make a 10-15 year commitment to live together with this thinking, feeling being. Sit quietly with him for a while. Does he look at you? Does he approach you for affection? Those are both good signs.  Don’t worry if he’s a bit hyper (some dogs get that way when they’re nervous).
  3. If you haven’t already, establish a relationship with a veterinarian and an independently certified reinforcement-based trainer.
  4. If you already have a dog, ask the shelter if you can set up a meeting with the prospective dog. Your trainer can help with the introduction. Animal Behavior Associates also has a great web-based short course on the subject.
  5. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Not every dog is going to be a perfect match. Take your time and find the best companion for you.

I really like Patricia McConnell’s book, Love has No Age Limit. I also like Pat Miller’s, Do Over Dogs. Both books are about living with and teaching dogs adopted from shelters and rescue groups. Here’s my approach to introducing a new shelter dog to your home with ideas drawn from both books.

  1. Have a plan for getting the dog to your home. The safest way for a dog to travel in a car or SUV is in a crate. Chances are, your new dog has experience being in a crate from his time at the shelter. Ask a friend or family member to share the ride with you so one of you can concentrate on driving without being distracted by the dog.
  2. Have your supplies ready at home: food, some interactive toys, a bed and a way to safely confine the dog. A crate is a safe way to confine the dog for short periods. Use a baby gate to block off a room with tiled floors for longer periods of confinement.
  3. Take it easy. Let your dog get to know your house one room at a time. There’s no need to let him run through the whole place on the first day. The same is true for meeting your family. Relax and let him get to know folks at his pace. Avoid inviting all your other relatives and friends over to meet him until he settles in a bit.
  4. Set a routine. This is especially true for potty training. Even dogs who were formerly house trained will need to learn where to go and where not do go in their new homes.
  5. Teach your dog what matters to you. Watch how he acts and notice when he does something you like (like coming to you, sitting to greet people, etc.) Smile, praise, and give him a nice bit of food right there on the spot. Dogs learn quickly. He’ll start to notice what earns him good stuff, and he will get right in line with your idea of good behavior. Warning: fussing at or punishing a newly adopted dog can be frightening to them and can actually lead to more bad behavior.

Once your dog has settled in, get started on some more structured training. There’s a lot to learn.  Have a trainer over to the house to for private coaching or enroll in a class with your dog. Force-free, reward-based training is fun. More than that, it’s how we learn to communicate with our dogs. The benefits will last a lifetime.

Celebrate your dog no matter where he came from. I purchased a dog from a breeder once. Her name was Juno and I loved her dearly. She was a puppy when I got her and she came with some risks. Training was hard and she had chronic infections. We made it, though. She lived a full life. I miss her to this day.

When all is said and done, I don’t think where a dog comes from is really what counts. It’s where our dogs and we end up together. Stella and Stewie came from the streets. She is a distemper survivor; he is a recovering leg-lifter. I snatched them both up from bad scenes and made them mine. At the same time, adopting them made room at the shelter for other dogs–ones who’d fallen on hard times, who were looking for a home, a family, a bit of good luck.

But then again, who am I to be talking about luck? All I have to do is look at my sweet Stella and my little Stewie. I have to smile. Clearly, October has always been my lucky month.

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA advises dog trainers in Houston, TX. You can read more of his posts at www.michaelbaugh.com