This article is from the Your New Dog FAQ, by Cindy Tittle Moore with numerous contributions by others.
Regardless of where you get your dog, you should make some effort to
evaluate it before making your decision. Does it follow you? Watch you
warily? What happens if you sit down next to it? How does it respond
to a leash? A sudden noise or movement? What is known about its
background? How does its health seem? Is it lame? Offer it a tidbit
and see what its reaction is.
If this is a dog through a rescue organization, chances are that a
foster family has been taking care of it in the interim. Ask them to
tell you what they've learned about the dog. If you have children or
other pets, ask them how it would react to them.
If you're looking at an animal shelter, you should have the
opportunity to interact with the dog in a fenced-in enclosure rather
than simply staring at it through the bars of it's kennel. Many dogs
are extremely shy or upset in the kennel and it's difficult to tell
what they are like. Bring some tidbits and see how it does outside the
kennel. Walk it around on a leash if you can.
If you are getting a dog from a breeder, then you should be able to
find out about all its background. Do ask all the questions you have.
You can evaluate it's temperament _to some extent_. Remember that the
dog may be anxious or disoriented and thus not behave as it would
In evaluating temperament,
* Talk to it. What is it's reaction? Does it look up at you? Ignore
you? Cringe and move as far away from you as it can?
* Stand up and move near it. How does it react to you? Does it come
up and lick your hand? Crouch down with ears down, perhaps
urinating? Back away? Back away with ears down and snarling?
* Squat down, extend a hand and let it approach you (do not approach
it). Does it come up (perhaps after some hesitation) and lick or
sniff your hand? Does it move away?
* If you have children, bring them along. How does the dog react to
the sight of them? To them walking up to it? To them sitting down
and waiting for the dog to approach?
* If you want to know how it reacts to cats, ask for permission to
walk the dog past the cat part of the shelter. You might be able
to improvise something else if you're not at a shelter: walking it
around the neighborhood past some cats, for example.
* Bring along a friend of the opposite sex with you to determine if
the dog is averse to the other sex or not. Some dogs have specific
fears of men, for example, so it's best to check this out
especially if this will be a family dog.
* If you walk away from it, does it follow you? How does it react to
various things when you take it on a walk?
Dogs that are obviously uncertain in their temperament (snarling and
biting, etc.) are not generally up for adoption at shelters. Dogs that
tend to whine or urinate or crouch down are generally submissive dogs
(not a problem unless it's severe or not what you want). Dogs that
approach you, even cautiously, tend to be friendly. This is obviously
just a rough indication of the dog's temperament. Stay away from dogs
that seem to be _too_ fearful unless you feel you know enough about
dealing with these dogs to help it overcome it's fear. These dogs can
turn into fear-biters.
Indications of friendliness: Ears relaxed or down. Tail _level_ with
body, moderate to fast rate of waving. Approaches and sniffs. Watches
you but averts eyes if you look at it too long. Play bows (front legs
lay down but back legs are still standing).
Indications of submissiveness: Ears down. Eyes constantly averted.
Dribbles a little urine. Rolls over on back. Licks your chin or
anything near. Tail tucked between legs.
Indications of fearfulness: Ears down, eyes averted, tail tucked, runs
away from you. Shivers in corner [some breeds shiver anyway]. Cringes
or yelps at sudden movements.
Indications of dominance/assertiveness: Ears erect or forward, tail up
high and wagging stiffly [spitz type breeds can be difficult to
ascertain between friendly wagging & assertive wagging]. Holds ground,
stares at you. These are not _necessarily_ bad things. If the dog
eventually approaches you and is friendly, then it's likely a
reasonably self-confident, friendly dog. If it growls, then it's
probably more aggressive.
Indications of aggression: Growls at you with ears forward and a
stiff-legged stance, tail still. Watchful and alert.
Indications of a fear-biter: Growls or snaps at you, ears are folded
flat back, posture is crouching or submissive even though it is
growling or snapping.
Some dogs appear totally disinterested. They don't respond one way or
another to you. These dogs may be sick. They might be overstimulated
or exhausted. Or they might just be very independent dogs. Some dogs
are more independent and less overtly affectionate than others.
Plan on making _repeated_ trips to whatever agency/person has the dog
for repeated evaluations. Let the dog dictate the speed at which you
progress through these steps. For very shy dogs, it may take a full
week of visits to progress to step three. If the agency/person that
has the dog will not allow you to remove the dog from its current
environment for an evaluation, look elsewhere for a potential dog. It
is important to get the dog away from its current environment as it
may be very shy and timid there, by association, but carefree and
wonderful when alone with you, like on a walk. The only way to tell is
to remove the dog from the environment. Stated another way, you should
eliminate the current environment the dog is in from any potential
problems you may see with the dog. You will be able to tell by
comparing its reactions in the original environment and when it it
outside of it.
The questions you ask during these steps are often a function of the
environment in which the dog will be placed should you decide to adopt
it. For example, if you have other dogs at home and the potential
adoptee is housed with other dogs and seems to get along well with
them, chances are better that you will be able to integrate the dog
into your home, as opposed to a dog that is agressive towards other
Implicit in these steps is asking the agency/person that has the dog
for all information they have about the dogs background. Just a stray
they picked up? Was it an abused dog? How did it come to be where it
is? All of these things give you more information that can be used to
evaluate the dog's personallity and suitability for adoption.
When you evaluate the dog during these steps, look for any physicaly
ailments as well. Lameness, shortness of breath, lethargy, and so on.
Above all during these steps, evaluate the dog and how the dog reacts
to you. It is important for you to feel confident that this is a dog
that you can nurture and spend time with and enjoy, and that it will
enrich your life. Do not feel bad if you must reject a potential
adoptee. This is part of the adoption process, and it is important for
you both to get off on the right foot.
If you decide to adopt the dog, you should always take it directly to
the vet before you even take it home. If there is something seriously
wrong with the dog, you want to find out before you've had the dog
long enough to form an attachment to it.