How to Pick a Good Dog from the Shelter


You and your family have decided the time has come! You are ready to take the plunge and adopt a dog. The process is exciting but also super overwhelming. Most facilities won't let you foster first and you are encouraged to make a decision within 10-30 minutes of which the consequences will last for years to come and affect your everyday life! To top it off some of the descriptions of the dog's personalities leave you feeling like you are buying a used car. What does ‘needs lots of exercise!’ really mean?

I have worked at many shelters over the years and have even been the one designated to write some of those personality descriptions. Let me give you a helpful guide for what it all means and what to ask when you get there. 

Description Words

"Energetic"- If it's enough to write it on the card, it's probably an understatement. Be prepared for a dog that is going to crave a lot of exercise and structured play time.

"Shy"- May need a quieter home life, without chaos. Could be prone to fear issues and/or separation anxiety. Be ready to set up manageable boundaries and confidence building training soon after you get home!

"Needs a lot of exercise"- They aren't going to put this lightly. The dog with this description is going to need a lot of structure, the family considering this should be super active and have someone available to put time into this dog more than just on the weekends. 

"Better without kids/dogs/and or cats" - It will be important to ask the kennel staff about the parameters of what this means for the particular dog. It will be important to try and figure out if their aversion is fear based or drive based. Because it is fine if your household fits what they need, but it may be an indication that more training is needed for them to become stable and confident dogs in their new environment. If they just have a high prey or toy drive and want to chase or get nippy, it can be curbed with training.

"Needs Manners" - Maybe a hot mess the first few days you bring them home but with a little direction and consistency (and probably keeping them on a short leash, literally!) they will get in check with what life and home needs to look like.  

"Loves treats"- This could mean that they have a few pounds to loose, but from my own experience it's a filler statement that they may not have a whole lot of background on the dog and are looking for the silver lining! This isn't a bad thing, just ask a lot of questions about the breed and what is standard, what the volunteers have noticed and what other information you can gather to make an educated decision.

"Needs one person household/not good with men" - this is going to be a huge red flag I'm afraid. Not being reliable with people is going to mean a lifetime of structure and getting on top of their training quickly to be safe. Life with a dog with this kind of warning should probably be left to people that have experience dealing with severe aggression and/or fear issues, or someone willing to commit to learning how to live life with a special needs dog. These are the most difficult dogs to place because their needs are so specific. Please proceed with caution and ask a lot of questions.

Breed Specific Traits to Keep In Mind

German Shepherd/Malinois- Smarter isn't always better. What this means is that smart dogs with a lot of energy (like Mal/German Shepherds) are going to need a job to do. That's why they make great police and military dogs. If you don't have enough time every day to give them an outlet for that energy, they are going to CREATE a job to do for themselves. This could be anything from digging out of your yard, to destroying your living room. So make sure your lifestyle and vision of life with a dog fits with what is needed for them to thrive.

Labrador- High energy dogs. Most young labs have a lot of energy, aren't great with spacial awareness (unintentionally knocking things over, including but not limited to small children). They seem like the energizer bunny from 8 weeks to about 2-3 years old then slowly but surely their energy level can come down. When I say slowly I mean you won't realize it until one day you realize they aren't a crazy lab anymore and wonder when it happened.

Golden Retriever- Lower energy than Labs, but still need a lot of attention. They are known for always needing to carry something in their mouth and are prolific shedders. Grooming should be a major consideration as well. Usually sweet and mild mannered, these dogs love to be up in your business and never leave your side, part of why they make such great service dogs!

Pit bulls and pit mixes- Personalities can very widely. A lot can have high drive which means may not do well with cats or small animals, because of their higher energy, they can tend to be reactive on a leash with other dogs or people, but is generally an easy fix. 

Mastiffs- People tend to want to get them as guard dogs for their family. They work well for this but keep in mind they are very leary of strangers TO THEM not necessarily you. So kids friends coming over, house guests, etc can be looked at as a threat until the dog really gets to know them. They may be guarded in public as well, although socialization is really important it can be overwhelming with a dog of that size that isn't so sure about everyone walking by. So start training early before you run into problems! Also keep in mind the drool factor. You will have it on your ceiling. It will end up everywhere. You have been warned.

What Questions To Ask

First of all, keep in mind, the shelter staff should NEVER be trying to 'pull one over on you'. They want to the dog to be as a successful match for you and your family as you do. So ask as many questions as you need to. Here are some good examples:

1.  This is what my lifestyle looks like (fill in the blank) which dogs do you think would fit my family the best from what you have seen?

2. What are common traits of this particular breed/breed mix?

3. In the description, it says this (fill in the blank) what does that mean exactly?

4. Can I foster the dog first to see what life is going to look like first? (most will not let you, but it is worth asking)

5. If it doesn't work out with this dog, what are my options? (This is a bit of a loaded question. There is a huge stigma at shelters where it is frowned upon to return dogs. That you've made a commitment, etc. But keep in mind, it's not fair to you OR the dog if the situation is not right. It can take weeks for real personalities to show and it might be an extreme difference in an environment outside of a kennel or shelter). If you feel you are going to get shamed into not having an option to bring them back, you may want to consider looking at animals at a different shelter.

6. Heartworm positive? Or medical needs? What does that mean long term? What is the expected cost and what will life look like with a dog with these particular special needs?

Personality Tests You Can Do While Looking At A Potential Dog

You like a dog and bring it into a yard or room to check it out, and have no idea what to look for. Here are a couple of things to try:

1. Tennis Ball/Toy Test - after you have given it a couple of minutes to get ya-ya's out, throw a ball or a toy. Does it bring it back to you, does it chase it but then keep running, or does it look at you like you're crazy? This can help tell you what kind of drive it will have, and energy level for playing. (Not all dogs come with 'fetch' factory installed!)

2. Check Ins- Does it hide behind your legs, shy away from you, or go do it's own thing and check back in with you occasionally? Although confidence can change once they get comfortable in your home, it shows you where they are at in that moment. Do they seem confident, independent or clingy? More well rounded dogs with go explore and come back and say hi. The one that is only occupied with watching other dogs or trying to escape is going to be more independent, etc.

3. Not barking in the run- this literally doesn't mean anything. I can't tell you how many dogs I have worked with that end up with barking issues at the house that never barked in the shelter. Do not use this as any kind of indicator.

4. Freezing Up- When you are interacting with a dog, especially if it seems nervous or shy, this can be a precursor to them lashing out, especially if it is when they are interacting with other dogs. The best thing to do is stop touching with them, stand up if you are kneeling and request a kennel staff member to help you evaluate the situation. 

5. Excessive licking- Although it seems affectionate, it can be a sign of insecurity. Dogs that are super loving, and don't want to leave your side can quickly develop problems when they are not able to be right by your side 24/7. Stay on top of separation anxiety by starting training as soon as possible.

With all of this being said, the best advice I can give is to talk openly with the staff and volunteers at the shelter. Be as honest with them as you can about what your lifestyle is really like and take your time. It may take several trips over several months to find a dog that is a perfect fit for your family. 

Did you know?

One of the services we offer is adoption counseling? It's true, we can go with you and help you assess and chose the right dog for your family before you make the commitment. 

For more stories, tips and tricks on training or if you have any questions please visit our website at or email Andrea at




Andrea Robinson