Clear the Shelters 2019

Hundreds of shelters across the country will be participating in Clear the Shelters on Saturday, August 17. At participating shelters, the adoption fees will be waived for bringing home a new companion. To find a participating shelter near you, visit

If you’re considering adopting a dog this weekend (or in the future), you’re probably thinking about what kind of dog you’d like — large, small, brown, tricolored, a specific breed or breed mix, male/female, and the list goes on. When I ask people what type of dog they’re interested in, they usually give me a description of how the dog looks, with one or two personality traits such as “protective” or “quiet.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a picture in your head of the type of dog you’re drawn to. We all have certain dogs we see and might feel a stronger pull toward, for any number of reasons. Maybe you grew up with a Border Collie, or you were scared of the tiny white dog down the street. 

The physical attributes or the breed of a dog should not be the deciding factor in which dog you adopt. That dog that looks exactly like the dog who was your best buddy as a kid might have a completely different personality (and probably does). And don’t make the assumption that every Poodle or German Shepherd will have the same personality. 

So how do you choose a dog to adopt? Your heartstrings will be pulled all over the place — but keep your head. 

  • Ask questions. Get to know as much about the dog as possible. Where did it come from, what is the history, has it ever bitten? Is the dog fearful or nervous? Are there any health issues? Many shelters will have fairly limited knowledge on the history of the dogs, but it’s always a good idea to find out what you can. If there are health or behavior issues, make sure you fully understand the dog’s needs and think about if you can fulfill them — long term. For example, a dog with separation anxiety can require extensive treatment that requires both time and money. If you are set on adopting a dog with special needs, just be very sure you are able and willing to fully take them on. 

  • Watch the dog’s body language in the kennel. A dog at the back of the kennel, turning his face away, may be fearful. A dog that is lying down on her bed might be relaxed, or might be shut down — which will make her appear relaxed but not give much information about her personality when she is more comfortable. Look for a dog who has loose body movements, a full body wag, eyes “soft” and kind of squinty. Avoid dogs who are stiff or oriented in a straight line (even when wagging their tail!). 

  • Take the dog out of the kennel and spend some time together. At first, just stand or sit quietly and observe the dog. I know, that is almost an impossible task but try! Seeing what the dog will choose to do can give a good indication on how friendly the dog is. See if the dog is coming to you in the first minute or two to seek out attention.

  • Interact with the dog. Pretty obvious, right? Talk to her, call her over. How does she respond? She might come right over, or maybe keep sniffing around but wag her tail in an extra big sweep when you make a kissy sound for her. Look for these types of reactions. Remember, the dog may not know his or her name yet, so whistle, clap softly, or toss a toy to try to get attention. Again, look for loose body movements. Pet her gently for a few seconds and then pause. Does she lean in or move closer to solicit more attention, or move away? Did she turn her head away when you pet her? Were the whites of her eyes showing? Did she shy away completely? A dog who isn’t into petting isn’t necessarily a red flag, unless you are looking for a cuddling companion. The other behaviors can indicate fear, which can lead to aggression. Behaviors such as completely stiffening (freezing), showing teeth, and growling, should not be ignored. 

  • Remember that a dog who appears calm may actually be shut down due to being overwhelmed. These dogs can be tough to spot, and being overwhelmed in a shelter doesn’t mean a dog won’t make a good furry friend. If you’re not sure, see if you can come back on another day and spend more time with the dog.

  • Meet more than one dog. Even if you feel like you absolutely fall in love with the very first dog you see when you walk into the shelter, put a hold on that dog if you can and then meet some more. You need a frame of reference. Maybe that first dog is The One, but meet a few just to be sure. 

  • Make sure the dog fits your lifestyle. Whether you have other dogs, a cat, young children, a small apartment or a big house — you want to be sure the dog you adopt will be a good fit for your lifestyle. This should go without saying. 

I could write a book detailing the ins and outs of what to look for when adopting a dog, but some other smart people already have. My favorite is “Successful Dog Adoption” by Sue Sternberg. 

If you would like to see your potential dog through a trainer's eyes, we will watch videos, view pictures, and meet the dog in person as our schedules allow. We do this for free because we firmly believe that making the right match from the start sets everyone up for success! Contact us to assess your potential fury family member.

If you’re not looking to adopt, consider supporting your local shelter by volunteering, donating, or just bringing the staff/volunteers a goody basket and saying “thanks.” They deserve it.