Most of the roughly 250,000 dogs that are admitted to Canadian shelters, rescue groups and municipal pounds each year are potentially wonderful pets that desperately need their luck to change.
An animal for everyone
"A lot of people think shelters are where all the reject dogs are, but that's so not true," says Shelagh MacDonald. She's the program director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS), which speaks for its member societies and supports their work. There are fabulous dogs at shelters, she says, adding, "It can be so rewarding to know that you're giving a home to a dog that really needs one."
So why do such blameless dogs wind up at shelters? Most often, says Bruce Roney, executive director of the Ottawa Humane Society, it's the result of a mismatch. "There's probably an animal for everyone," he says, "and it may be a goldfish for some." Dogs can be challenging, and too many people don't really understand the demands of dog ownership. Some don't do their homework and choose dogs -- purebreds and crossbreeds alike -- without learning how they'll develop.
Recognize dogs' needs
Most dogs in shelters are larger crossbreeds who have outgrown the irresistible puppy phase and have needs that overwhelmed their first owners. All dogs need companionship, mental stimulation, activity and training, but some need more challenges and vigorous exercise -- every day -- to keep them happy and manageable. Bored, under-exercised dogs can become unhappy and destructive, and this sometimes lands them in a shelter.
Like other well-run shelters, the Ottawa Humane Society assesses all incoming dogs for problems with health and temperament and screens out dogs that are aggressive or otherwise unreliable. Roney says these problems are often the inheritance of poor breeding practices, such as those found in puppy mills. Most dogs, however, arrive with nice, stable natures. "Our goal is to put up highly adoptable animals," he says.
Unless you're set on a certain breed, shelters are an excellent place to find a canine companion, says Dr. Hendrik DeZeeuw, a veterinarian at Sunrise Animal Hospital in
Mt. Pearl, Nfld. It's important to choose a dog that's appropriate for your lifestyle, he advises. Another tip? "Look for a friendly, outgoing dog that comes to you, not the shy one hiding in the corner or the hyperactive one," says DeZeeuw.
Once you've made your choice, expect to sign an adoption contract. The terms will vary and so will the price. Across the country, humane societies charge from $60 to $275, depending on the dog and the veterinary services they include.
Page 1 of 3 -- Find tips on choosing the right pet for your family on page 2
Learn what you can
It's critical to learn as much as you can about the dog and what responsibilities come with it. Increasingly, humane societies are educating prospective dog owners, discouraging impulse adoptions and helping ensure that people choose a compatible dog. "We want people who have thought about it and are prepared to make a lifelong commitment to the animal," says Roney. When the match works, he adds, "it's magic."
Now living in Courtenay, B.C., Dr. Lynn Slaby and her dog, Timber, were a good match right from the start. Slaby adopted the German shepherd-Labrador cross from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) when he was six months old and she was a veterinary student in Saskatoon.
Found abandoned in the wicked cold of a Prairie winter, he became her constant companion. Good natured and sociable with people and other dogs, Timber had no behavioural problems; Slaby suspects that his previous owner simply couldn't cope with his phenomenal energy level. "I got a lot of exercise!" she says, laughing. After a couple of years, Timber slowed down somewhat, but until then "he was a busy, busy dog."
Slaby's adoption of another shelter dog, Sage, wasn't as smooth. The beautiful collie cross brought along some serious baggage. "Timber worked out wonderfully for me," Slaby says, but adds that helping most new pets make the transition requires patience. If you've got dog trouble, she recommends that you ask your veterinarian for assistance or consult a trainer whose approach you're comfortable with -- and read a good book on dog behaviour. Try to understand what makes your pet tick; it's all about communication.
Let your dog adapt
It's normal for an adopted dog to need some time to adjust to its new home. Shelter dogs may display separation anxiety, the result of having been abandoned at least twice (by their original owners and then by the shelter that becomes, for many, another home). Such dogs can get highly agitated and engage in unwanted behaviours, such as barking, chewing your shoes or peeing on the carpet, when left alone. If you need it, ask for help, advises DeZeeuw. You can usually work things out once you know how.
Shelters have lots of great dogs just waiting for a chance, says Slaby. When you make your choice, use your head as well as your heart and do your homework. Spend time with the dog at the shelter and find out everything you can about its history and behaviour. Shelter staff can help you. Caring and knowledgeable, they work to ensure a happy lifelong home for every dog.
Shelter dogs may have lacked love, training, socialization and exercise, but once established in good homes, they can be the very best of companions -- and extraordinarily loyal. "They're so grateful for anything you give them," says Slaby, "because they haven't had very much."
Page 2 of 3 -- Welcome your new furry friend home with expert pet care advice on page 3
It may be home to you, but to your new pet it's a strange place. Here is some advice from Dr. Rich Medhurst, a veterinarian at Rosedale Animal Hospital in Toronto, that will help you get your shelter dog settled in happily.
• Bring a dog guard or crate in the car when you pick her up, so your new dog doesn't jump into your lap on the way home.
• Adopt your dog in the morning, so she can get acclimatized before bedtime.
• Once you're both home, keep things calm. Let her explore her new home without the distractions of appliances running full tilt. Keep your children quiet and controlled -- and never leave them alone with the new dog. Avoid visitors for the first few days, as well.
• Show your dog her bed -- a comfortable place that's clearly her own -- and make sure nobody bothers her when she's there. Bring a blanket or toy that smells like the shelter to put into her bed, recommends Medhurst.
• Make sure she knows where her water and food dishes are. Initially, advises Medhurst, it's best to feed your dog the same food she's been given at the shelter, then change her diet gradually, if you wish, after she's settled.
• Don't abandon your dog once she's home; get to know each other. Keep things low-key and relaxed, and take her for short on-leash walks. Establishing a routine for sleeping, eating, walks and so on will help her feel secure.
• Recognize that it may take time. Above all, be patient and gentle. "Most dogs," says Medhurst, "will adjust well to a caring environment."
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