So, you know you want to adopt a dog, and you have an idea of where you'll get him from, but where do you start? What questions should you be asking? In terms of deciding on what type of dog you'd like to adopt I'll direct you to my previous blog post, Essential Factors to Consider When Adopting a Dog. Once you have an idea of the age, breed type, and temperament you're looking for, it's time to start visiting some contenders. Some people know after visiting just one dog that they have found "the one" (both Regis and Phoebe were my first and only choices after I had found them online). But if that's not you and you need to weigh your options, here are some questions you want to make sure to ask...
1) What is the dog's history? Has he been returned?
Honestly, this may matter, or it may not. There are plenty of dogs out there with traumatic pasts who recover and are normal, behaviorally well adjusted dogs (one of my favorite examples of this is Pibbling with Theodore, a dog who was bred specifically to be a fighting pit bull, was confiscated during a dog fighting ring bust, and is now a happy, well-adjusted dude who teaches other dogs how to play and socialize appropriately!). There are also dogs who never experienced trauma but were seriously under-socialized or genetically predisposed to having a fearful temperament; these dogs may always seem "spooky" or "reactive". It's also important to remember that many, MANY shelter and rescue dogs don't have any baggage at all and simply fell on hard times when their owners lost their homes, passed away, etc. But it can help to have this information for future reference particularly if there are any behavior issues that come up. The other thing to ask is if the dog has been returned; this could point to a less than ideal experience in previously adoptive homes.
2) How does the dog react around other dogs? Other animals? Children? Strangers?
There's a common saying that the most reliable predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Ask the shelter point blank how the dog behaves around other dogs? Ask them to give clear descriptors such as "very loose, wiggly body with a wagging tail" or "barks and lunges", rather than "he goes crazy" or "he seems friendly enough". Ask to see it in person if possible. Same thing for how the dog behaves around children and unfamiliar people. If you have young children in your family I would look specifically for a dog that has lived with young children and eagerly greets them. Lastly, it's important to know that the absence of behavior is in and of itself a behavior. If I have a dog that isn't growling or barking, but is choosing not to engage or to avoid something, I make note of that.
3) Has this dog ever displayed any aggressive behaviors?
Note, I do not ask "is this an aggressive dog?" Aggression isn't a personality trait, it's a snapshot of a dog in that scenario. There is no such thing as a dog that behaves aggressively all the time, but aggressive behavior is something you need to know about. This is a question to ask point blank. Many shelter and rescue volunteers tend to side with the dog (I have been guilty of this as well!); if a dog was returned for guarding his food from his humans, the volunteers want to say that "they never should have bothered the dog while eating". While this has a grain of truth to it (I'm a huge fan of letting your dog eat in peace and not "testing" them by messing with them while they eat) it does mean that the dog has practiced resource guarding in the past. Remember, "he most reliable predictor of future behavior is past behavior." If I have a home with young children, or grandkids that come to visit frequently, I would probably look for a dog with no history of guarding his food, unless I am completely confident that I can safely manage all involved (including the dog!). However, if this is a dog that guards only his food and the potential adopter doesn't have kids around, I wouldn't necessarily let this change my mind. Feed the dog in his crate with the door closed and leave him alone, and you probably won't run into any issues!
4) How does he do with potty training in the kennel?
This will give you an idea of just how potty trained your dog is. Even if you're adopting an adult dog, they may have never been properly potty trained or they may have been an outside dog, so it's worth asking to know what you may be getting yourself into.
Most reputable shelters should be upfront and honest with these details right off the bat, but sometimes you need to dig a little deeper, especially if it's a shelter run with mostly volunteers because details about the dogs can get lost in communication. When you have dozens of different people handling the dog each week it can be hard to track behavior reliably. Some shelters will also be able to provide you with an assessment from a temperament test, although even temperament tests aren't 100% reliable (see here for some reasons why and how shelters should responsibly use temperament tests).
Lastly, it's important to know that some dogs present with certain behaviors in the shelter environment that they won't show in the home; the shelter is an artificial, stressful environment, and once that stress dissipates behavior can change. It's not unheard of to have a dog guard his food in the shelter but to stop once he's more relaxed in his new home, or for a dog to not show any territorial/aggressive tendencies in the shelter but once he's in his home for a while start to display less than desirable behaviors. Behavior is never a 100% guarantee, and that's where educating yourself about dog behavior and body language will go a long way!