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So, you want to get a dog. Puppies are cute, but you hesitate to bring one home because you know they can nip at your time and attention. You may be a candidate for a mellow dog, well past puppyhood, who can ease into your lifestyle with relatively little hassle.
Why an Older Dog?
There are many benefits to adopting an older animal. Whether you choose your dog from an animal shelter or a breed rescue group, you’ll have a grateful canine on your hands. Choosing an older animal also eliminates the guesswork about his full adult size and his temperament, which can be an unknown when a puppy arrives in a shelter.
And there are other advantages to picking a grown-up dog, too. The trial-and-error learning phase is already over. The dog is housebroken and sleeps through the night. He doesn’t need so many trips to the vet, and he’s outgrown his impulse to take everything in his mouth and chew on it. He’s probably learned good manners, too, like not jumping up on your houseguests or stopping his protective bark when you tell him it’s okay.
Most important, your dog has already learned how to learn. Though your household may be run differently from his previous one, his brain is wired to follow human direction and adapt to your schedule.
He also understands how to assume his rank in the family pack. He can be gentle with children and has enough experience to know when he should seek out a quiet place, away from the demands of toddlers. An older dog – especially one who has already shared a household or played with other pets – is more likely to meld into the existing hierarchy established by your other dogs and cats.
Gauging His Temperament
As a rule, a breed-rescue group or humane shelter will evaluate your dog’s temperament and behavior to ensure that they place each dog with an appropriate owner.
Professionals first try to discern what breed dominates in his mix. The size of body and head, the length and shape of tail, ears and feet, the slope of the chest, the coat texture and coloring, all offer clues. A series of temperament and behavior tests show if the dog exhibits breed-specific tendencies, such as tracking scents or protecting.
Whether they can determine a dog’s breed or not, shelter personnel interact with him and walk him to determine his energy level and interests. They expose him to different situations. Does he need to run and jump? Is he happy to saunter along and curl up at a worker’s feet? Does he beg and charm to get human attention? Would he rather chase squirrels? How does he relate to men and women? To children? To other dogs? To cats? Then they pass this information on to you.
Bonding With Your Adult Dog
As you introduce your “new” old dog into your home, you will feel each other out, learning to read each other’s personalities. As “lead” dog,” you have primary responsibility for building good communications. Your objective is to build a strong bond, to help him be a loyal companion who feels loved and appreciated.
Though he won’t need the concentrated attention that a puppy would, it might take the grown-up dog more time to bond with you. Take every chance you can to pet him, stroke him and groom him. But do it all at your bidding – not his – to assert your leadership.
Your first hurdle in bonding is to get the dog to respond when you call his name. If you don’t know his original name, you’ll have to teach him a new one. Your goal is to make him respond eagerly, not for treats, but for your praise and affection as his only reward.
It requires a fair amount of detective work on your part to understand what’s in his head. He may experience separation anxiety from his former owners, no matter how they treated him. The fact that they yelled at him, gave him confusing commands or didn’t do a good job of keeping him from tearing up the house might be the reason he ended up in the shelter. Or maybe his previous owners spoiled and pampered him, indulging all his doggy desires.
Closely observe your dog. Play non-threatening games with him and take him into different situations. If he cowers or shows aggression when confronted with noises or certain situations, he may be carrying negative associations from his past. Look for patterns that may explain his reactions. Does he fear hands, sticks or umbrellas? Is he nervous around strangers? Perhaps his possessive tendencies were never corrected. Most dogs can be re-trained, and will learn confidence and trust.
But be forewarned: At times, shelter personnel may tell you that a certain dog has discipline problems or a dominant personality, which only a highly experienced dog owner can handle. No matter how “cute” he seems, don’t hesitate to pass that dog up and choose another, one that will be right for you.