M’hijito called the other evening to report that a friend of a friend wants to find a new home for a two-year-old golden retriever. M’hijito himself has craved to get a dog for a long time, and in particular he pines for a golden, the breed of his beloved childhood companion.
The story is that the pup’s family consists of a pair of divorcing doctors. The dog belongs to their fifteen-year-old daughter. Mom and Dad, in their unholy wisdom, have decided that in addition to depriving their child of a stable pair of parents (chances are she hasn’t had one of those in a long time), they’re also going to deprive her of her pet, neither parent wishing to take care of it in singlehood. To be fair, there’s a second pet dog, possibly one that’s more manageable in an apartment (read “doesn’t eat the furniture”). But there it is: the element of cruelty gives M’hijito pause. It has a whiff of coldness about it that makes one wonder what exactly is being offered and why.
Since my familiars have always been dogs (preferably large ones) rather than the tediously conventional black cats, he wanted to know what questions I would ask about this animal and its background, by way of guessing what he was getting into. So, late at night while Cassie the Corgi took the broom for a spin beneath the new moon in the old moon’s arms, I came up with a few things a person might want to know. If you’re interested in adopting an adult dog, especially one that comes from a private home (as opposed to a shelter), you might consider a few of these, too:
1. Where did they get the dog? If it came from a breeder, what breeder? Where? Do they have the dog’s pedigree? Will they let you see it?
2. If you do examine the pedigree, look for forebears that were bred back to a prior generation (for example, the dam to an “uncle.”) This is difficult to figure out, because some degree of inbreeding is considered OK and all breeders do it. But too much? Bad sign.
3. Is the dog OFA-certified? If not, why not? Were both parents OFA-certified? Can the seller prove it? OFA-certified means the dog’s hips were X-rayed at around 18 months and found to be free of hip dysplasia, a painful and crippling inherited defect. Large dogs, in particular, should not be bred without OFA certification. OFA stands for “Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.”
4. Is the dog house-trained?
5. Is it accustomed to using a dog door?
6. Is it crate-trained? If so, do they have a crate they will give you or sell to you?
7. Does the dog like to ride in a car?
8. Has the dog been obedience trained? When, where, and by whom?
9. Will the seller let you take the dog for a walk on a leash, to see how well it heels?
A dog should walk on your left side without pulling on the lead or trying to drag you. Do not pull or drag on the lead yourself. Communicate with the dog with a quick, short jerk on the lead, not by trying to haul the dog in. The best word to tell the dog to walk beside you is “HUP!”
The dog should track beside you as you are walking forward and as you make a U-turn to your right. Do this, walk a ways, do another rightwise U-turn, walk a ways, and then with the dog at your side make a U-turn to your left, so the dog effectively has to pivot or nearly pivot to follow. Walk a ways. Stop. A fully trained obedience dog will sit when you come to a full stop.
If the dog does not sit, quietly tell it to sit. If it doesn’t know to do this, you’ll need to work with it. Gently guide the dog into the “sit” position by holding the lead firmly but gently vertical and pushing the hindquarters to ease the dog into “sit.”
Once you get here, put the lead down (assuming you’re in an enclosed space), tell the dog to “stay”—do not raise your voice but try to sound convincing—and accompany this command with a gesture that places your palm toward the dog’s face. The classic “stop” gesture usually will do it. Step away from the dog, repeating the gesture. Stop. Wait a second. Then call the dog to you.
If the dog will do all these things, then it is respectably trained. Some dogs will not do these things for strangers, especially if they sense any inexperience or unsureness.
10. Are its vaccinations up to date? Do they have a vaccination record that you can take to your vet?
11. Will they let you have the dog examined by your vet before making a final decision? Be prepared to tell a concerned owner your veterinarian’s name and telephone number.
12. Has the dog experienced any health problems? Does it have any known allergies? Ear infections? Digestive issues? Skin problems? How are its teeth?
13. What do they feed the dog? If it’s anything unusual (such as the BARF diet of raw meat and bones), ask them why.
14. How often is the dog used to eating, and how much?
15. How does the dog behave around other dogs? Around small dogs?
16. Is the dog nervous in storms or frightened of lightning and thunder?
17. Does the dog dig in the yard?
18. Does it try to break out of gates or dig under fences, or jump fences?
19. Does it bark, cry, or get into mischief when left alone for a few hours?
20. Observe the dog and see if it appears to be over- or underweight, if it limps, if it’s nervous or jumpy, etc. You might also consider asking if it still chews the furniture.
How is this a money story? How can we count the ways that it isn’t? A full-grown dog that is poorly trained, unsocialized, or psychologically damaged can and will destroy your home, all the furniture and carpets in it, and all the clothing it can get its teeth on. It will excavate your back yard, leaving you with an open-pit mine where your garden was. It will drive your neighbors to the police with complaints about barking and other nuisances. If its health is unsound, the veterinary bills will quickly outstrip the house, furniture, and landscaping repair bills. And if its breeding is faulty, its personality may curdle without warning, leading it to bite you, your children, and your neighbors’ kids.
All of these things are very, very expensive.
Update: Dog Adoption: A Near Miss