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How To Find The Right Rescue Dog

Give Fate A Boost By Doing Your Part First

Is she the one?

On the spur of the moment, you pop into the shelter. You walk along that poignant, bark-filled corridor, and suddenly lock eyes with The One. It’s utterly clear to both you and the dog that this is a once-in-a-lifetime connection. You head home that afternoon, and live happily ever after.

Sure, that happens.

Let’s just not plan on that, okay?

There’s another, more predictable way to get to the same delightful ending: Think it through, take your time, and prepare your household. That’s how you give fate a better shot at hitting a home run.

The first step is to get clear on your parameters. That needs to happen before you get addicted to (which is where virtually all shelters and rescues now list their dogs). Unless you have hours to kill and a heart that doesn’t mind a wild ride, decide ahead of time which dogs are a no-go for you. Establish a target age, size, and energy level.

Think about age.

Going about your life with a young, active dog at your side is an entirely different world than having a sweet old guy waiting for you on the couch. And puppyhood? That’s an experience of its own. Each phase has its charms and its challenges. The trick is figuring out what age fits you and your household best.

The appeal of a wiggly, cuddly eight-week-old puppy is obvious, but most folks are not prepared for those 24/7 demands. Even when it IS the right time in life for you, there will be days that you wonder why in the world you chose to upend your perfectly lovely life and center it around a tiny ball of fur. Puppies are ideal for households where somebody is home the majority of the time, and at least one person is enthusiastic about taking on potty training and the all-important socializing. If, instead, everybody’s gone 8am - 6pm, and then coming home to the dinner/sports/homework rush, you’re going to need a substantial village, a big dog-walker budget, and a puppy chore chart to make sure that little one gets the positive exposure to the world that’s so critical at this tender stage. It can work, but it’s hard.

Adolescents (say, six months to a year) are a better match for many households who want to get in close to the ground floor of a pup’s life. These dogs may be house-broken, and they’re past the constant-chewing-and-mouthing stage. And because they can hold their bladder a bit more, they can be left in a crate for longer stretches. But don’t be fooled: these pups still need to learn all about the world from you! They need loads of engagement and activity once you get home. Be prepared to take training classes so that you can actively shape your young friend into a great companion, to go on long walks no matter the weather, and to seek out other dogs for romping and socialization.

Beyond adolescence, there’s an enormous range covered by the term “adult.” The one thing that’s for sure is that you’re seeing the final package in terms of size and coat, with no surprises ahead. Beyond that you have everything from an absolute unknown stray to a beautifully trained dog with a detailed history who was given up by the family going overseas.

Not sure you have the time and energy for all of that? There are absolute treasures of no-longer-young dogs just waiting for you! House-broken, mellow, and just looking for a nice couch and a stroll around the block, these gems should not be overlooked.These matches are some of the sweetest.

Think about size.

News flash: Tiny puppies can grow into huge dogs. (Sounds obvious? Tell that to the thousands of dogs every year surrendered to shelters because they “grew too big.”)

Size does matter when it comes to behavior. When a tiny dog jumps on your great aunt, it might be cute. The same is not true for your 80-lb lab. Similarly, your animal-obsessed third-grader can have a wonderful time walking your little yorkie around the block, but don’t even think about letting her do that with your big young hound. While all dogs benefit enormously from training, it’s the big dogs who will make you realize you need it.

Think about your energy level.

It turns out that many potential dog adopters are hikers – aspirationally speaking, that is. The fabled “hiking” is typically listed on the application as a key element of their suitability for dog ownership. A year later, it turns out they hiked with that dog exactly twice. (There were super tired after work, and there were SO many good shows on Netflix.) Their dog jumps up on everyone and chews the furniture, and they’d like to know how to get him to stop that. Sigh.

My point: Be realistic. If you think aspirationally when you ponder the right energy match for your household, you will pay the price in dog behavior. A tired dog is a good dog. A normal daily requirement for a young dog might look like this: a 45-minute brisk walk, 20 minutes of fetch in the yard, a 20-minute playdate with a neighbor dog, a food puzzle for a meal, plus a 15-minute training session. Give him that kind of day, and he’s suddenly miraculously well behaved: no jumping, no mouthing, no counter-surfing, no furniture chewing. But many people seem to think dogs are like hamsters, and can be popped into a cage and forgotten … If the kind of engagement outlined above strikes you as something you’d love, then welcome to the club! Get yourself a young, active, big dog, and enjoy that commitment and its rewards. However, if you got overwhelmed just reading that list of activities, do the right thing and pick a lower-energy dog that’ll be perfect for you! Go older, go smaller. Some furry friend out there is just waiting to curl up with you on the couch after work. It’s a win-win.

Think about breed.

Or don’t. You will, of course, have some sense of a breeds you are drawn to. Just be aware that, while every single rescue dog’s listing will include a “breed,” it is most likely a guess. Now that we have reliable DNA tests, scientists have learned how often those guesses are completely wrong. (Here’s a sample study.) It would be a shame to cross off a dog because of a guess – and a mistake to adopt a dog solely because of a guess. Just look at the dog in front of you, listen to what the rescue folks say about their demonstrated temperament, and go from there.

Think about gender.

Or don’t. As long as you spay/neuter, personality and behavior spans the spectrum in each gender. One approach is to factor gender into the equation only if you already have one dog. In that case, you might try to fall in love with a dog of the opposite gender, because that may increase the odds that your two dogs will always get along great.

NOW go on Petfinder.

Now that you’ve done your homework and have a realistic concept for the type of dog that’s a good match, it’s time for the fun part. You are now allowed to head over to Plug in your zip code, the distance you’re willing to travel to meet a dog, and your ideal doggy parameters. Then sit back and watch your potential pack members pop up. Virtually alll shelters and rescue groups use this great website, so you’ll really know who’s available.

The individual pet write-ups are sometimes very helpful, and other times utterly generic. Don’t let a generic write-up scare you away – it just means nobody at that group had time to write something.

Ask good questions.

When you’re interested in a particular dog, you click the email listed and get connected with someone who can tell you more. Mind you, that person is likely a volunteer who spends endless hours every week trying to place dogs well. Please be understanding if responses are slower than you’d like, and be respectful of taking that person’s time if you’re not serious. (Pro tip: Nice people get the dogs. Who wants to send a sweet dog to a human with a bad temper?)

Of course, everyone wants a dog who is already house-broken, crate-trained, walks well on a leash, gets along with other dogs, loves kids, never begs … and there really are those dogs out there in the rescue world. Most, however, will have an area or two that’s a challenge for you to work on. The key is to figure out what your deal-breakers are. If you’re a single guy who works from home and is eager to train a lot, you may be ready to roll with any surprise that shows up in that stray dog who just came into rescue yesterday. If, instead, you have two young kids, your elderly mom living with you, plus a cat, you’ll want to find a dog who has a previous owner or foster who has experienced this dog in those situations.

Here are some general questions to ask:

* How did the dog end up in rescue?

* How long has he been there?

* Does anyone know this dog well (i.e. previous owner or current foster)?

* Does he appear to have lived in a home before?

* How does he react to other dogs?

* How does he react to new people?

* Has he been tested for heartworm? (A positive result means months of expensive treatment, likely covered by the rescue but check!)

* Has the dog been spayed/neutered?

Responsible rescue groups want a forever match, so will be as honest as possible with you. Truly, exercise and training will work wonders on almost any issue. You’ll want to listen closely, though, if you hear the dog is skittish around people, reactive around other dogs, or shows separation anxiety. Those things can take a long, consistent effort to turn around – but it is incredibly rewarding when that happens.

Be ready to lose out on a few.

People who are searching for their first rescue dog inevitably lose out on a few, shocked by how swift the process can be. It usually takes newbies a while to go from “see photo” to “say yes,” and by then somebody else already took that pup home.

Don’t worry! Next time you’ll be the one who’s ready to move on a dime, because you did the mental processing this go around. And then you’ll have your own magic story like the lucky soul who walked through the shelter and locked eyes with The One. You’ll say, “We tried for three other dogs that we fell head over heels with, and we were so sad when we didn’t get them. But thank goodness. Because we can’t imagine life without this one.”

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