Before Adopting a Dog, Recognize These Behavior Issues
Average Reading Time: 4 minutes, 57 seconds You have finally located the dog you want to adopt from a local rescue organization or animal shelter. She’s pretty; she’s the age you want; she’s the breed you want; she’s the size you want; she’s friendly; she’s healthy; everyone in the family loves her. These are things that are important when selecting a dog to adopt. However, there’s another dimension that adopters frequently overlook. Does this dog have any serious behavior issues? As someone who works with dogs with major behavior issues, I can confidently tell you that some problematic behaviors can dramatically and negatively impact the dog ownership experience.
Average Reading Time: 4 minutes, 57 seconds
© Scott Sheaffer, CBCC-KA, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC
You have finally located the dog you want to adopt from a local rescue organization or animal shelter. She’s pretty; she’s the age you want; she’s the breed you want; she’s the size you want; she’s friendly; she’s healthy; everyone in the family loves her.
These are things that are important when selecting a dog to adopt. However, there’s another dimension that adopters frequently overlook. Does this dog have any serious behavior issues? As someone who works with dogs with major behavior issues, I can confidently tell you that some problematic behaviors can dramatically and negatively impact the dog ownership experience.
Adopters need to do their best to discover what behavior problems might be present in a dog before adopting. If some significant behavior problems are discovered, it’s incumbent upon the potential adopting family to decide if these are issues the family is financially and psychologically willing to take on. It’s a personal choice, but one that needs to be made with eyes-wide-open.
What are the challenges of assessing and diagnosing problematic dog behaviors in a shelter or foster home environment?
By simply observing the dog in shelter environments or in foster homes, what can be known about the dog? Some dog behaviors are very difficult, if not impossible, to observe when a dog is in a shelter or foster home while others are detectable.
Things are not always as simple as they seem when it comes to evaluating behavior in dogs who live in animal shelters. The environment in an animal shelter is very different from a home. The dog is constantly around many loud dogs and many shelter workers. Everything is regimented in their environment and shelter workers frequently don’t have the time to critically observe these dogs.
For these reasons (and others), common behavior assessment tools used outside of shelters aren’t particularly predictive or reliable from my experience. There are assessment methodologies specific to shelters, but I’m not convinced they aren’t much more than an academic exercise.
Even foster homes have their challenges. Many rescue volunteers who foster dogs have multiple foster dogs in their homes at the same time. When you consider that most fosters also have their own dog(s) and family to consider, it is apparent that some of the challenges of assessing dogs in a shelter are also present in foster homes.
What are some of the common dog behavior concerns that can be known before adopting?
There are numerous types of dog aggression to be on the lookout for when adopting a dog. Some of those are:
Territorial Aggression (a heightened level of human aggression in the dog’s “territory” caused by a fear of unfamiliar humans). This is almost impossible to assess in a shelter, but if the dog is in a foster home this can be observed in how the dog reacts to strangers entering the foster home.
Intra-Household Aggression (fighting amongst two dogs that coexist). This is not typical dog-dog aggression. This is specific to dogs who live together. If the dog is living with other foster dogs in a home there can be some indication if this is an issue.
Control Related Aggression (aggression directed toward the dog’s owners or handlers). This might be observable in a shelter or foster environment by those who regularly interact with the dog.
Dog and Human Aggression (aggression to unfamiliar dogs and humans that the dog fears). This is frequently and reliably observed in both shelters and foster homes.
Phobias (irrational fear of specific inanimate objects). This is frequently observed in both shelters and in foster homes.
Separation Anxiety. This behavioral problem is almost impossible to diagnose in a shelter environment but can sometimes be observed in foster homes. Rescue dogs have a higher propensity for separation anxiety than the general dog population. Separation anxiety can be difficult to treat.
Resource Guarding (aggressively guarding inanimate and animate objects). Dogs can, and will, resource guard anything. Resource guarding behaviors are frequently observed in both shelters and in foster homes.
Inappropriate Urination (urinating inside). This behavior exists for a number of reasons and is typically not observed in shelters but can be observed in foster homes.
Compulsive Behaviors (repetitive behaviors such as tail-chasing, excessive paw licking and shadow chasing caused by anxiety). These are frequently observable in shelter and foster home environments making themselves known before adoption.
How do you discover if an adoptable dog has significant behavior issues before adopting?
I’ve provided you a checklist below to help you get started. Some rescue organizations are hesitant to reveal many of the problems they observe in a particular dog. This is somewhat understandable, but not doing so only pushes problems down the road and can make it difficult for the adopting family and adopted dog. In short, you’re going to need to do additional digging outside of just asking the rescue organization what they’ve observed.
Ask the rescue organization if you can see any behavioral notes they have on the dog. Yes, many rescue organizations keep detailed notes on these kinds of things.
If the dog is being fostered at someone’s home by a foster volunteer, go through the list above of common behavior issues (and any others you want to ask about) and address them one by one with the foster volunteer.
Ensure you ask the rescue organization whether the dog has been returned by prior adopters. This is frequently, but not always, an indicator that there are serious and chronic behavior problems.
Most rescue organizations encourage bringing your dog(s) to the animal shelter or foster’s home to introduce them to a dog you are thinking about adopting. While this isn’t a terrible idea, please know that I have found this is not a very good predictor of whether you’re going to have problems with intra-household aggression.
There are a number of dog behavior assessment tools. I find them perfunctory and not reliably predictive of future behavior. If you want to use one of these, at least do the testing outside of the shelter or the foster’s home.
Possibly the single most important question you can ask before adopting a dog is, “Has this dog ever bitten or shown any other kind of aggression toward a human to the best of your knowledge?” Dog bites don’t necessarily require that the dog has significantly injured someone, just an attempt to bite is technically considered a dog bite. See “Read More” below for more information on this.
The best, by far, assessment tool is for you to take your newly adopted dog home for one to two weeks (or longer) for a trial period. Many rescue organizations will give you this opportunity and will allow you to return the dog with no questions asked. Many will refund any adoption fees you’ve paid. The challenge of doing this is that you may become emotionally invested in the dog while they are residing with you and all objectivity is lost.
Adopting a dog is always challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. The best things in life seem to always have some risk and unknowns. Adopting a dog is no different.
9 Questions to Ask Before you Rescue a Dog
6 Types of Dog Bites - Updated for 2020