Who Is That Doggy In The Window?

In this blog series, I’ve covered a bit about dog breeds, why they are important and how breeds impact the personality of the dog in front of you. Now let’s talk about how individual characteristics can be discovered in a few quick moments while visiting a shelter dog of any breed or combination of breeds.

The first thing to keep in mind is that every dog in a shelter environment is stressed. There simply is no way around it. It’s hard for dogs to be housed in kennels, even if they are given playgroups, enrichment, love and several walks a day like the dogs in our care at Willamette Humane Society. All dogs should get the attention, great toys and exercise that our dogs get (thanks, volunteers!). Stressed dogs are likely to act differently than the same dogs in a normal home environment. Take that into consideration when walking through our kennels. That non-stop barker? Probably barks a little at home, but will be silent if you’d just give him a lap to lie on. That shy, fearful dog in the corner? Wait til you see her at playgroup, running amok with the other dogs and into the staff’s arms! So, don’t judge too harshly by what you see at the kennel gate.

Marianne with dog

If you can visit with the dog away from the kennels, that’s ideal. Evaluate the dog from the moment you see him coming toward you. Does he seem happy to be with his handler? When you greet him, does he acknowledge you? Again, remember he’s been in a kennel, and most urgently might need to take care of both biological and mental stress before he’s ready to engage with you. Give him a few minutes to explore his environment, read the pee-mail left by other dogs and unwind.

A social dog will seek you out fairly quickly after relaxing. He’ll want to be engaged, and will bring you a toy or just solicit petting. Do you want a velcro-type dog that needs constant attention? Here’s where you might see that: “TAKE ME HOME; PLEASE” behavior.  On the other hand, a super-social dog might not be your style. Aloof individuals provide companionship without the clingy.  Ask yourself what kind of dog you really want to live with.

How active are you? Does this dog settle in quickly, matching your couch-potato lifestyle or does he continue to buzz around the play-yard, looking for the next, best thing?

Is the dog playful? See whether the dog is into balls or squeaky toys or fluffy toys. If you toss a toy, does he chase it? Ignore it? Bring it back? Retrieving dogs are highly train-able but demanding retrieving dogs might be a challenge to live with if you don’t have competition sports in mind. If none of those toys flip his switch, try tossing a handful of treats for the dog to hunt and find. Check interest and persistence. Dogs with high play drive need partners with active doggy lifestyles. Dogs that lie down and relax are better for the TV-tray set.

Check for food motivation. Does the dog eat a treat? What does he like better? Liver or cheese? Biscuit or bacon? Will he follow a treat with his nose if you close your fingers around the treat and lure him from one place to the next? Does he take the treat gently? Dogs that are food-motivated are exceptionally easy to train and dogs with soft-mouths are better for families with kids. Speaking of kids, let’s discuss picking a family-friendly dog in next week’s article.

Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA

Behavior Program Manager at Willamette Humane Society
Named “the dog lady” by peers in grammar school, Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA first became a California licensed veterinary technician, then finished a BA in Psychology while doing undergraduate research on the human-canine bond at the University of Montana. After that, she was recruited by the Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital to develop the ABC puppy school, to assist during veterinary behavior consultations and to help create and instruct the Purdue DOGS! behavior modification course for veterinary staff. Catherine is now an adjunct faculty member at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon and instructor for the state’s only community college level professional dog trainer certification preparation program which began in Fall 2014.
Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA