choosing a dog photo

Time to Find a Friend?

When the time comes to bring a companion dog into your heart and life, the question may be: Where do I start? How can I find the perfect companion for the next fifteen years?

Sometimes a dog just “happens” to you. You find a stray; a friend leaves town and can’t take their pet; you’re fostering a rescue and fall in love. Other times, you must make a physical effort such as visiting a shelter or sanctuary. How will you base your end decision and make a true commitment to a currently homeless dog?

Places to Look: Adoption Options & Wish Lists

One of the best ways to find a new dog companion is to volunteer to foster. Fostering is an excellent way to “test drive” a dog before making a life-time commitment. Just like dating before marriage, fostering a dog can provide you with opportunities to narrow your personal likes and dislikes, tolerances and intolerances, and basic “wish list.” Fostering will also help homeless dogs and their overwhelmed rescues in the process of fine-tuning your search.

Visits to shelters may seem overwhelming with all the needy pups vying for your heart. Take your time. If the organization offers experienced adoption counselors, communicate your lifestyle, desires, and past experiences with former dogs. Carefully listen to their advice and trust their judgement in recommendations of dogs in their care. Together, make a list of possibilities and plan enough time to visit with each one.

Make your “wish list” even if no counselors are available. Your defined list will mentally cement what you need to fulfill your life and then stick to your goals. If you are an athlete and want a running companion, don’t fall for the sad-eyed ten-year old cocker. If you’re a professional and away from your home for long hours, don’t take on a bouncy, untrained puppy. If you have small children, cats, or no yard, avoid shy dogs, terriers with high prey drive, or Border Collies. Determine your priorities—points that are non-negotiable (hypo-allergenic coat?) or flexible (Color? Size?)

Issues to Consider

Once you have narrowed down your search criteria and are meeting individual dogs for consideration as your new best friend, focus on the most important issues. Determine the dog’s sociability. Some dogs have not been exposed to early and continued socialization, and/or may be genetically predisposed to be more cautious, reserved, or fearful. This type of dog deserves a loving home as much as any other, but make sure you have what it takes to help this type of dog develop. Consider your lifestyle and your own family and circle of friends. Ask yourself if this dog would fit in, especially if you have active children, other small pets, or numerous household visitors.

Spend as much time with the dog as possible to see whether his behavior and activity level change over time. Most dogs act differently during the first ten minutes of an interaction than they will for the rest of your visit with them. Some dogs are so eager for attention that their exuberance overshadows their normal independence. Other dogs may appear shy–but the shyness may mask the dog’s true pushy, or overly reticent, nature. Studies show that it takes three months for dogs to settle into their new lifestyle. This time may be increased for a dog that has an abuse, neglect, or cruelty background.

Interact with each potential dog one-on-one. How much time does the dog spend paying attention to you? Does he look at you? Does he make physical contact? Unless you have the experience with, and lifestyle for, fearful dogs who have questionable ability to trust, let the super shy dogs wait for a better qualified adopter.

Does the dog listen to you? Encourage the dog to come when he is preoccupied. Can you get his attention? Does he make eye contact with you? Is his body language relaxed, playful, and non-guarded? If your children are with you (as they should be in this search), how does the prospective pet interact with them? Does he wrestle, growl, or nip? Does he shrink back and cower in their presence? Can you get his attention with them near?

Will He/She Fit Into Your Family?

You need to find out whether this dog likes other dogs and animals, which is important if you have other pets at home. It isn’t fair to ruin the lives of your current pets by bringing home an asocial or antisocial dog. The other animals were with you first. You don’t want to make life a nightmare for a resident pet when you bring in a new one. First meetings between pets are crucial determinants towards their future peaceful cohabitation.

If the shelter allows (as they should), bring your own current dog(s) to visit, but not on the first contact. Visit first by yourself and with your human family. Then bring your own dog for a meet and greet. If you have more than one current dog, introduce them separately. Never allow an already existent “pack” to gang up on an insecure dog in a shelter environment. Help the dogs get off to the right start by controlling interactions in neutral scenarios, like an on-leash walk around the grounds. Don’t provide quality “resources” for them to compete over, such as toys or food. See how they interact/play without things to compete over.

It will be difficult to ascertain behavior problems in the chaos of the shelter environment. Be prepared to deal with some issues and have a good behaviorist’s business card ready. Sometimes shelters have behavior departments that will assist you and your new canine in the “getting to know you” stage, as you adjust to each other’s peccadillos. If you have found your possible pet in a foster home environment, listen to the foster family. They know their charges and will advise you on the suitability of their chargeling to your existing family. Don’t be offended if they feel you are not a good match. They know what their foster dog needs. There will be many other possibilities for you. Unfortunately, homeless dogs are abundant.

Another important consideration is the dog’s general activity level. Is he a couch potato or an Energizer Bunny? Is he constantly on-the-go, does he eventually settle down, or is he emotionally removed? Remember, you must live with this dog’s energy level 24/7. But also realize what you initially observe will change when the dog slowly comes to the realization that he has the security of a forever home and family. If the dog is young, age will bring a definite mellowing. If he has a history of neglect, he may be overly needy or non-engaged at first.

Try to visit the dog on at least a couple of occasions and at different times of day. Some dogs are high energy in the morning but by mid-afternoon are compliant followers. Most dogs will make huge efforts to accommodate their people, but age, breed, sex, and individual hard-wiring will become evident. Study breed characteristics but be open to the typical “Heinz 57” whose exact linage is a mystery. There is no substitute for the healthy, well-socialized mixed breed although learning what inherent behaviors he is born with may have to be gradually deciphered and modified. Make sure your new dog is spayed or neutered—both to avoid rampant reproductive-tract cancers and to avoid adolescent behaviors that derail him from his complete attention to you and his family.

Time to Adjust

Give your new dog time to adjust to you and your lifestyle. No one is perfect and time together can be hit or miss during the first month or two. Be as aware of his needs as he will try to be to yours. And always know that most dogs will make gargantuan efforts to meld themselves into your life, if you communicate clearly, concisely, consistently, and in language they understand.

You wouldn’t choose a human life mate on the basis of a fifteen-minute speed date. Neither you nor a dog should expect to be able to make the needed life-time commitment to each other in an abbreviated, first-impression based, superficial first contact—especially if it is in a crowded/chaotic kennel/shelter. My grandmother used to say, “Marry in haste, regret in leisure.” Both you and your prospective dog friend deserve plenty of quiet, peaceful, safe time to interact and to allow a gradually deepening bond to develop.


Once you make a commitment to a homeless dog, keep it. If issues or communication difficulties arise through your years together, find appropriate help. A dog is like any other family member and deserves your tenacity, commitment, and the safety net of a forever home, not another abandonment.




Sunny Weber

Sunny Weber

Sunny has over 25 years’ experience in pet rescue, humane education, shelter & sanctuary work, service dog training, obedience competition, dog & cat fostering, pet medical care, horse ground training and has authored articles and books in several fields.

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