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Finding a Loyal Fitness Partner at the Humane Society Shelter

Yes, you can find a perfect fitness partner at your local dog pound.

Regardless of their age, size or breed, the best canine fitness partners are interested in pleasing you, they're friendly with other dogs and humans, they're emotionally calm and centered, they're reasonably quiet, and they're non-aggressive. Since this list fits the vast majority of dogs, it leaves you lots of room for making a great choice.

If your new dog's primary job is to act as your fitness partner, you will want to select a dog that has been bred to enjoy being with people. Some breeds, such as the independent-thinking hounds, do not care all that much about humans and will be more difficult to train. When was the last time you saw a coonhound or Saluki leading a blind person across the street? That doesn't mean they can't be trained, but they do take more patience.

Companion dogs of all kinds, and many working breeds, have been bred for their trainability. Do careful research about the type of dog you are considering, to make sure their needs and abilities will match your own.

If your new dog's job is to help you bring yourself out of a state of lethargy or depression, or if you're just plain lonely, you may be drawn to a happy, energetic canine who wants to play, or perhaps you'll prefer an abandoned mutt who clearly needs your care and affection. Definitely look for a dog who will love being with you. Some dogs have empathy, and some dogs, (like some humans), don't.
Choosing between a puppy and an older dog.

Puppies have the advantage of being cute and endearing, and if you choose a breed that fits your personality and lifestyle it will grow up to be a great walking companion. As soon as your puppy has been vaccinated, he can start his daily walking routine. Young puppies can't go very far, of course, but you can increase the distance you walk as he gets older. Remember to reinforce the rules and treat him with quiet respect and dignity, and he'll be a loyal companion for many years. A great puppy personality test is available online, courtesy of Rolan Tripp, DVM . There are also a number of excellent books on dog breeds and behavior. I suggest that you do some research and talk to owners of various breeds, before choosing the pup or dog that's right for you.

A good breeder will be able to help you choose the best pup from a litter, if you let her know what you're looking for, what activity level you can give your dog, and a bit about your own personality and temperament.

You can find wonderful older dogs at the local Humane Society, through specific-breed rescue organizations, and through breeders.

Many breeders have "left over" pups that have gone beyond the cute stage but which have had lots of time to become well socialized with other dogs. Your local breeder may also have older breeding stock that has reached retirement age, and these dogs often make good pets. Make sure, though, that the older dog you get from a breeder has not spent his life in a kennel - it is difficult to toilet train a dog that has grown up soiling his own bedroom.

Rescue organizations usually foster their dogs, so their foster family will have a very good understanding of the dog's temperament and any special needs it may have. You may be required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and allow a home visit before the organization will approve your application.
Humane Societies and animal shelters usually temperament-test their dogs, and will give you important advice to help you choose the best dog for your household.

Finding a dog that fits your personality and energy level.

The most important thing to remember when choosing either a puppy or an adult dog is to match your own temperament and physical ability with that of your new dog. For instance, someone who enjoys many hours of blissful silence will not be comfortable sharing a home with a dedicated yapper. A human who enjoys spending time in enthusiastic athletic pursuits will be unhappy with a dog that prefers to spend his afternoons on the couch. If you want to cuddle, you won't want an Afghan hound.

If you're an older person with some physical limitations, you might want to consider an older pooch or a small dog. You can probably find a "used" dog at the local Humane Society who needs your companionship in his or her golden years. Most older dogs will not be disappointed if you can't walk as far or as long as you could 30 years ago, and they truly appreciate the love and care you give them. Even if you fondly remember the bond you had with a loyal, exuberant Labrador back in your teens, you should carefully evaluate your current situation so you can find the best match for the energy and personality you have now.

Don't assume, however, that an older dog will automatically be a slow dog - I know a 9 year old Border collie who could fetch tennis balls until my arm drops off, and I'm sure she'll be going just as strong when she's 15. Fortunately, she lives with someone who enjoys throwing tennis balls and Frisbees just as much as she does.

Since dogs come in many sizes and shapes, and they've been bred for different activities and temperaments, you'll want to carefully choose a puppy or shelter dog that you can easily relate to. Be sure you don't get a puppy or dog just because you like the looks of his breed, or because he's so cute, or because someone blackmails you with a threat to take him to the pound if you don't adopt him now.

This is an important decision that could affect the next 12 to 18 years of your life, so choose wisely.
Marty Becker, DVM, the author of The Healing Power of Pets, gives some excellent advice for choosing an older dog from a shelter. I'll paraphrase his suggestions here, but I strongly suggest that you read the full chapter in his book if you get the opportunity.

  1. Walk down the row of kennels in the shelter and see which dog or dogs you are immediately drawn to. Also watch the dogs to see how they react to your presence - you should look for the dogs that act friendly without excessive jumping or barking. If he's snarling or growling, move on.
  2. When you find a dog you are attracted to, calmly approach his kennel without staring him in the eyes. Does he come up to the front of the kennel and ask for attention? Does he sit calmly with a friendly look on his face?
  3. Dr Becker suggests that you now make a mildly startling move, such as suddenly raising your hands over your head and moving your upper body towards the dog. Then immediately go back to your upright, calm position. If the dog is frightened or if he becomes aggressive, you will want to move on to another dog. The "right" dog will show a slight startle reaction but immediately forgive you for your strange behavior and remain calm.
  4. If the dog has passed the test so far, now crouch down into a playful position and happily encourage the dog to approach you. If he stays at the back of the kennel and won't approach because he now has trust issues, you'll want to go on to find another dog.
  5. Once you find a dog that passes the kennel tests, take him or her to the private exercise yard that most shelters provide for prospective owners. Does the dog spend his time checking out every smell, try to find a way out of the fence, or otherwise ignore you? Or does he show a strong interest in you, ask for your attention, and watch your every move with happy anticipation of your praise? Clearly, the dog that pays attention to you will be a more suitable pet. Also watch to see if he calms down quickly, instead of jumping and barking. Calmer dogs are more enjoyable to live with, and are easier to train.
  6. Stroke the dog (don't pat him on the head - dogs don't like that), and see if he appears to enjoy your touch. If he pulls away from it or completely ignores it, he may not be very people-oriented. If your touch frightens him, you should look for another dog. Note: Many submissive dogs will flip over on their backs and show you their tummies, and some people (even some shelter volunteers) interpret this behavior as fearfulness or a sign of previous abuse. There is a difference between fearful behavior and naturally submissive behavior. Submissive dogs are enjoyable to be around, but fearful dogs can be dangerous. If you aren't sure which type of behavior you're seeing, ask for advice from a well-seasoned staff member.
  7. Walk the dog back to his kennel, past the other dogs. Watch how he reacts. You will want a dog who acts appropriately, which is to say that he may be interested, and even friendly towards the other dogs, but he does not show any tendency to "fence fight." If he does, he will not be a good companion to take on your walks.
  8. If you have cats, ask if you can take the dog past a cage of cats in the shelter. You cannot assume that the dog's behavior towards a caged cat will be the same as the way he behaves towards your cats, who are free to run, hiss and scratch at will. However, if he is overly interested in the cat, whines and pulls towards the cage, or attempts to break into the cage, he will probably not be trustworthy with the feline members of your household.

A note about the "dominance" issue.

Whether you choose a puppy or a "used dog" from the pound, you should always choose a dog that is less assertive than you are. Both humans and dogs have hormone levels that place them in a specific natural role in the pack (or tribe), and it is almost impossible to change it. Unless you really want to spend the next 12 years of your life fighting your dog for control of your household, you'll leave the macho, alpha pup or dog behind and find one more willing to follow your instruction and leadership.

That said, most dogs will happily seek direction and affection from their humans. After all, that's what they've been bred to do for thousands of years. The truly dominant dog that shows aggression towards its owner is either badly bred or a genetic mistake. Don't let anyone tell you there are no bad dogs. There are, just as there are bad humans. But they're rare. Humane Society shelters almost always test their dogs for any aggression problems, and these dogs are not put up for adoption.

The Humane Society staff can help.

If you decide to get an older dog from the local shelter, the staff will let you know if a dog needs a more experienced owner because of behavioral or health problems, and they'll counsel you away from any dog that seems to be a bad fit for your family. They'll know if a dog should not be introduced to a home that already has cats or other dogs, or if the dog can not be trusted around children. Be sure to pay close attention to their advice.

Your future dog's needs.

It is extremely important to also consider the dog's needs, and whether or not those needs can be met in your household. Some breeds, such as the Border collie, are often adopted by people drawn to the breed's intelligence and beauty, but who cannot possibly give the dog the full-time active job their muscles and minds require. Other people are drawn to the stronger breeds because they appear more macho, like the Rottwielers and pit bulls, or they go for the latest fad, like the Dalmatians that appeared in a Disney film.

Unfortunately, these wonderful, smart, playful and inventive dogs often find themselves at the dog pound before their first birthday, because their humans couldn't keep them working for 14 hours a day, or allow them to run 25 or 30 miles, as the dogs had been bred to do. To get an idea of what types of dogs are most often mismatched with their humans, just take a trip to your local dog pound. The same breeds show up over and over again, because the average person doesn't have the right home for them.
On the other hand, if you spend lots of time at home and can give one of these dogs the exercise and mental stimulation they need, one of those overly-active pound puppies could be a perfect match for you.