Choosing a Dog: Test Drive

Once you have narrowed down your search and are meeting some individual dogs for consideration, you would be well-advised to take each dog for a ‘test drive’ to find out a number of important things before you invite him into your home:
1. The first item on the agenda is to determine the degree of the dog’s sociability. Some dogs have not benefited from early and ongoing socialization and/or may be genetically predisposed to be more cautious and reserved. This type of dog deserves a loving home as much as any other. Just be sure you have what it takes to help this dog develop a broader circle of friends. Of course, you should also consider your lifestyle and your own family and circle of friends. Ask yourself if this dog would do well in this regard (especially if you have children). While dogs are generally superbly adaptable creatures, they do have preferences, just like us, and you would do well to respect their individuality.

– Spend as much time with the dog as possible to see whether his behavior and activity level change over time. Most dogs act very differently during the first 5 or 10 minutes of any interaction than they will for the rest of their time with you. Some dogs are so eager to play with a person that their exuberance overshadows their normal independence or standoffishness. Other dogs may appear shy on first meeting – but the shyness may mask the dog’s true pushy or overbearing nature.
– In 15 minutes, how much time does the dog spend paying attention to you?
– Does the dog look at you? Does he make contact? (You want a dog that likes you!) It is smart to get a realistic picture of whether the dog would rather interact with you or entertain himself by investigating his immediate surroundings.
– Does the dog listen to you? Can you get his attention? (happily and calmly encourage the dog to come when he is otherwise preoccupied).

2. Next you need to find out whether he likes other dogs and other animals. Obviously, this is especially important if you have other pets at home. It just isn’t fair to ruin the lives of your existing animal companions by bringing home an asocial or antisocial dog. Remember, the other animals were there first. It is important that the newcomer gets along with them. Surely you don’t want to make life a living nightmare for a resident pet when you bring in a new dog. Just think how you would feel if your dog brought home a really obnoxious and belligerent human to live with you! Dogs that do not have good skills with other animals range from those that are disinterested to those that are intent on inflicting harm. In the latter case, the dog must be placed with a family without other animals.

3. It also is smart to find out what behavior issues this dog has, i.e. whether the dog soils the house, chews destructively, or barks or digs excessively. Of course, you have to be realistic. All dogs (and all people, for that matter) have at least some behavior problems. Many behavior problems can be resolved quite quickly; others are harder to manage and may require more diligent effort. House-soiling, destructive chewing and digging can be resolved relatively easily (as long as you are diligent about managing the dog to prevent practice of the behavior and in regards to teaching new appropriate habits). On the other hand, owner-absent barking due to stress, may take a more concentrated effort. While a dog is not likely to come with a lifelong report card outlining exactly what he is about, you can glean some useful information by chatting with the people who have recently spent time with the dog and by carefully observing his behavior. How does he react when he is tethered by a leash and restrained a few feet away from people? How about when you walk out the door for a few moments? Try giving him a chew toy. Is he engaged in it or does he seem too stressed at the moment to focus on fun?

4. Of course, another important consideration is the dog’s general activity level. Place it somewhere on a scale that ranges from potato-lethargy to wall-bouncing, utterly rambunctious, turbo-charged hyperactivity. On first meeting, many dogs are the latter. Estimate the dog’s general activity level. Is he constantly on-the-go or does he eventually chill out and settle down?

5. Last but not least, try to visit the dog on at least a couple of occasions so as to get a better sense of what he is about. This is not always possible (especially if you are adopting from a shelter and the dog is highly adoptable). But, make your best effort considering this guy might be your companion for many years to come and you want to make a wise choice for all.

When choosing a dog, don’t expect him to be perfect (although it’s wonderful if he is!). Realistically, you can expect all dogs to have some problems. Consequently, the most important thing to determine is how good of a match is this dog for your family (and vice versa).