Transformative Dog Training in Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Charleston, SC

A Perfect Match: What To Look For In the Shelter


Today I want to have a conversation about selecting shelter dogs, a topic about which many people have questions. Recently I spoke with someone who wanted to rescue a dog from the shelter and train it to be a therapy dog. They asked for our help, and I told them I could give them some ideas about what to look for in a dog. I’d like to give that same information to you here.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s extensive enough that we can generally use it with success. So I thought I’d share at least a handful of the more important bullet points on that list with you today. Hopefully, if you’re looking to rescue a shelter dog, you’ll find this helpful.

The first thing that you should realize is that you’ll probably want to test several dogs. I hate to say this and come across as mean, but there is a reason why some dogs are in shelters. They might have a problematic nervous system, been neglected, or have negative behaviors. Lots of things can totally prevent a dog from being a therapy or service animal. Not every dog can fulfill those roles—in fact, most dogs can’t! Service positions require a certain set of characteristics that aren’t present in every dog, especially when you’re looking for an animal that can perform a specific task. That kind of exclusivity immediately rules out a huge portion of dogs that you’ll see, in a shelter or anywhere else.

If you need a car that can run in a race, you won’t look for a minivan. There’s nothing wrong with a minivan, but it’ll never be a race car. Even if you put in a ton of time and effort into streamlining and modifying it, it will still never race as fast as other vehicles. Why would you put that effort into But unfortunately, that’s what people do with dogs: they reduce the wrong kind of dogs for service or therapy roles. The same could also be said for agility dogs, protection dogs, search and rescue dogs, and more.

What I look for most in a therapy or service dog is confidence. I want a dog that can handle pressure and stress, because those are huge parts of these dogs’ lives. Therapy dogs meet with hundreds of people during their lives. They have to be around medical equipment, strange owners, screaming people, and all sorts of other stressful things. We need a dog that can handle that. So the dog that’s huddled in the corner, frightened of everything? I wouldn’t try to train it as a service dog.

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Now, if you’re equipped to handle that dog, then by all means rescue it! But don’t expect it to be a therapy or service dog. Many owners will rescue a dog like that out of pity, because they see that it needs a home or responsibility. It’s certainly noble, but the chances of a dog who’s already timid becoming confident enough to become a service or therapy dog are pretty slim. So the first glance at a dog can tell you something about a dog. Certainly not everything, but sometimes enough to make a judgment.

If I see a dog that’s aggressive or fearful, or is backing into a corner or barking at everyone, I automatically won’t take that dog. I want a dog that wants to confidently greet me. When looking for a service dog, I don’t mind a dog that jumps up on me. That can be fixed through training, and it shows the dog has the confidence to greet a stranger. But I don’t want an overly-hyper dog that’s constantly stimulated and can’t calm down. For therapy work, you ideally want a social dog that wants to engage with new people but is also calm.

We also need to recognize that being in a shelter environment may be cause a dog to become more anxious. So normally I try to take the dog out to test it. During this time, I basically want to see how well the dog results to stress. Sometimes I’ll take a large tin pan and drop it on the floor directly behind the dog. What I like to see is a dog who’s maybe a little startled, but quickly recovers and becomes curious about the pan. If the dog immediately runs away, starts barking like crazy, or can’t seem to recover from the surprise, that’s not a dog that I want for service or therapy work. I might also open an umbrella toward a dog, and see how quickly it recovers from that shock.

Then I want to take the dog out and see how much else I can find out about the dog. Is it food motivated? How well does it handle leash pressure—does it fight the pressure or work with it? Is it confident enough to approach strangers? Is its body overly sensitive when you touch it in different places? If it’s afraid, can it recover quickly? In general: how does this dog deal with wild cards in the environment? Does it struggle with them, or does it confidently overcome them?

I know this might seem kind of vague, and that’s because my years of working with dogs have given me a gut feeling about whether a dog is suited to a job or not. But there are a few concrete tests that can tell you what the dog is like, and they’re the ones I’ve given you above. If you look at them fully, they will give you a decent indicator of which dogs might be able to do therapy or service work.

However, the true test doesn’t come until training. You won’t really know if a dog is suited to this work until it’s under pressure day in and day out, until you’re having fun with it and putting pressure on it and relaxing with it. Once you’ve seen how the dog handles training, then you’ll know a lot more. But when you’re trying to make an initial choice, those are the tests that I use. I hope that they help you too. Best of luck as you start this new adventure!

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