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Evaluating Temperament in a Potential Rescue Dog  

The following article appeared in the February issue of Texas Dogs, 1994.
By M. Shirley Chong - Copyright 1994, M. Shirley Chong

The call came in a few minutes ago: there's a dog of "your" breed at the local animal shelter; someone who is about to euthanize their dog was given your name by their vet as an alternative; an older man suffered a stroke and his daughter is trying to find a home for his beloved dog.

You're dismayed, excited, hopeful, and a little fearful--will this be an adoptable dog? You know that there aren't an unlimited number of good homes for your breed; you know that there are some dogs with temperament or health problems such that they probably could never be adopted. The health evaluation should be carried out by your vet; the temperament question is probably up to you.

The following is the evaluation that I use as an initial evaluation of a prospective rescue. It started out based on puppy testing, the only model I had available at the time, and grew with my experience and knowledge. It isn't finished or complete- it is only a rough guide.

You will need to bring a collar, leash, dog toy (preferably a fuzzy one), comb, and toenail clippers with you. Remember that you will need to disinfect anything you use on a strange dog.

History - Write down as much of the dog's medical and behavioral history as is known. Try to get the veterinarian's name and permission to call that vet. Ask about the most common behavioral problems: housetraining problems, inappropriate chewing, jumping up on people, submissive urination, dog aggression, human aggression (find out whether it involved children, adults, or both). In the case of housetraining problems or chewing, try to determine whether they are manifestations of separation anxiety. Find out about the dog's diet, the amount of exercise they get, and whether or not they are crate trained.Take the history with a grain of salt; consider the source.

In the case of shelter personnel, is it someone who is good with dogs? In the case of an owner who is relinquishing their dog, judge their dog knowledge by asking what actions they took to try to resolve their dog's problems.

Meeting the Dog - If possible, have a chair available in the area you will be evaluating the dog. When the dog is brought in, let the dog greet you. Initial shyness is not a serious problem, if the dog will approach you within 8-10 minutes. Be aware of NOT being dominant--avoid direct eye contact, don't lean or loom over the dog, keep your body language soft and relaxed. Sit down and let the dog approach you. Look at the dog's face--what is it saying to you? Is the dog tense, fearful, dominant, relaxed? If the dog seems extremely relaxed, inappropriately relaxed, be aware of the possibility that the dog may be drugged (rare, but it happens). If you believe the dog may be drugged, be very careful--a very common effect of tranquilizers is to remove inhibitions and make a dog very unpredictable (because their body language is "off").

After the dog has approached you and seems comfortable with you, casually get up and move away. Does the dog follow you? Can you coax the dog to you? Or does the dog ignore you because they are so interested in their surroundings?

Physical Examination - After the dog seems comfortable with you, carry out the following examination. Be alert to possible discrepancies between what you observe and what you've been told about the dog (for instance, you were told the dog is nine months old, but it has heavily tartared teeth). If the dog resists at any point, back off! This is a pretty intimate examination for a first date--evaluate the type of resistance the dog is displaying. If it is wiggling, squirmy, goose-y evasion, it may just be excitement and/or a little shyness. If it is muscles tensed, lip raised, snarling resistance, this may be a clue to temperament problems. Especially in a shelter situation, remember the dog may be feeling disoriented, frightened, vulnerable, and especially defensive.

  • Eyes: the pupils should be appropriately dilated or contracted (according to light levels); the pupils should be the same size. Check dilation by using your hand to shade one eye--the other pupil should also react to the change in light level. Note whether there is any milkiness or opacity (possible cataracts).

  • Ears: should be clean without an offensive odor. If the ears are reddened, and there is waxy buildup, the dog may have an ear infection or mites. If the dog is extremely worried about your examining their ears, this may be a clue that the dog has had repeated ear infections in the past or is feeling pain in that area.

  • Teeth: should be white and sparkling, but probably aren't. Judge the condition of the teeth against the dog's stated age.

  • Joints: flex each of the dog's legs and gently squeeze the long bones. Take note of any areas of tenderness and how the dog reacts if you find an ouchy area.

  • Muscles: Feel along the dog's neck, shoulders, loin, and hindquarters in a firm, massaging motion. Note any areas of tenderness. Also note the dog's reaction to the massage--does this dog enjoy body contact?

  • Feet: examine the feet and nails. Try to clip a toenail--is the dog resistant?

Finish the physical exam by gently placing the dog in a down and then gently trying to roll them over on their side or back. If it is a bitch, check for a spay scar; if it is a male, check for testicles. In either case, note how difficult it was to put the dog in position and if the dog relaxes when you gently rub their tummy.

Assessing Training and Willingness - Put a collar and leash on the dog. Move around--how well does the dog follow you now that you have a leash on the dog? Tell the dog to sit. Many dogs do not know this command, so if the dog does not obey, gently help them with one hand on the collar and the other hand pressing behind the knees.

Praise! Does the dog seem to be happy with getting your praise? Try varying your voice tone up and down, louder or softer. Does anything you say elicit a tail wag?

Once you have some rapport built up, leave the assessment area (if you can). Let the dog become distracted by something new, then call the dog's name. Does the dog react in any way (including just flicking the ears)? Try a whistle. Note how distractible the dog is and how willing they are to respond to you.

When the dog is facing away from you, toss the toy past them. Note the dog's reaction. A high prey drive dog will either alert (or point) on the toy or lunge after it. Some dogs may ignore it entirely. Some dogs may shy away or cower. Let the dog go over to investigate the toy, and encourage them to pick it up. How easy is it to take the toy away from the dog?

Try to get the dog to bounce and play with you. Make squeaky noises, bounce, do modified play bows. What sort of play does this dog enjoy? Are they very physical. maybe even mouthy, or would this dog prefer to cuddle and be stroked?

Making a Decision - Deciding to accept a rescue dog usually means that you feel that particular dog is adoptable. It isn't unusual for someone new to rescue to accept one or two dogs that, due to health or behavior problems, are not adoptable--the rescuer simply keeps the dog(s). Over time, this is usually not a tenable method--sooner or later, the rescuer cannot keep any more dogs. I am not usually concerned about accepting a dog with a history of housetraining problems, inappropriate chewing, or jumping up. These problems are generally relatively easy to resolve. A dog that is somewhat shy (takes several minutes to voluntarily approach the evaluator) is usually adoptable. A dog that has chronic health problems or is older can usually be adopted.

The following reasons for not accepting a dog are based on my own personal judgment. Certainly, others may decide differently!

  • Dogs in the end stages of terminal illness. Sometimes an owner can't bear the thought of the dog's impending death or the possibility of euthanasia. They convince themselves that maybe, in a different home, or with a wealthier owner, a cure of the dog's illness or disability will occur.

  • Dogs with a history of severe human aggression. If the dog has inflicted a wound on a human being that required sutures, is not usually adoptable for reasons of legal liability.

  • Dogs that will not approach the evaluator within 10 minutes. Such a dog will find it very difficult to adjust to a new home (if ever!), not to mention the extreme difficulty in showing this dog to potential adopters.

  • Dogs that try to attack the evaluator on sight.

  • Dogs whose legal ownership is in question. It would be terrible to place a dog in an adoptive home, then find out later that the legal owner is trying to reclaim the dog.