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Adopting a Dog from a Private Party: 20 questions to ask

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

7 thoughts on “Adopting a Dog from a Private Party: 20 questions to ask”

  1. Overall, these are a wonderful set of questions to get a good idea of what you may be getting into with a strange dog. However, a few of them concerned me.

    A dog that destroys things may be a bored dog that has not been given enough attention by its owners. Same for digging and depending on the breed of dog, some are just diggers by nature.

    Also, my dog does not heel. I do not wish her to heel and have never taught her to heel. She likes to range a few feet in front of me when we walk and I am okay with this. On the other hand, we do not walk in a crowded city near busy roads so this is not a safety issue as it may be for some.

    I would also like to point out that the general commands of sit, stay and heel are not used by everyone. My dog would not know what to do if you told her to stay, but she will obediently “wait.” It’s important to find out what commands the dog does respond to and not assume that a dog is disobedient just because it doesn’t respond to the particular words you happen to use.

    I know this is a long comment, but this topic touched my heart. My own dog is a stray that showed up at our door and was never claimed. She showed signs of having been mistreated and did not respond in the way a “good” dog might to our initial commands. It has taken some time for her to learn that from our hands come petting and treats not blows, but she is the smartest dog I’ve ever owned.

    Some dogs take more of a time investment than others and it’s important to recognize that at the beginning. Sometimes, those dogs are the best kind.

  2. @ Katelyn: All these are good points and true. My point is not that you shouldn’t accept a dog for whom the answers to these questions might be construed as “negative,” but that you should be aware of what you’re getting into.

    M’hijito has a job. Although he does come home over the lunch hour, he is gone all morning and all afternoon. Sometimes he’s forced to work on the weekends. Because the back end of the house is all French doors, the structure literally has no place–not even in the walls–to install a dog door. Since it’s downright immoral to leave a domestic pet outdoors in 116-degree heat, the right dog for him is one that can live at large in the house without doing a lot of damage.

    For a person who doesn’t have a job that takes him or her out of the house for lengthy periods, a pooch that has to be watched and tended to all the time might be a fine choice. I think you need to pick and choose the questions that fit your circumstances…the challenge is to identify an animal that can fit into your setting and that you can adjust to comfortably.

  3. Thanks! You’re timing of this is great for me at least since I’m starting to look into dog adoption. And I think the questions would also be useful for a shelter dog. I would also add making sure the new dog can get along with any existing animals. Our local shelter (the good one anyway) requires you to bring along other dogs. My sister’s dog is horrible around other dogs but got along just fine with my childhood dog. So it worked out ok, those kind of things can make a previous “dealbreaker” more manageable if you truly are attached to the animal.

    Also maybe consider the age of the animal. A young puppy that walks perfectly on the leash probably doesn’t exist. Temperament matters more then manners at that point because you’re still training the manners 🙂

  4. If only more people thought it out as much before getting a dog, I’m sure there would be less animals needing to be rehomed. Two of mine came from shelters so there was no opportunity to ask such questions, thankfully their issues are not more than we can deal with!

  5. Another thing to ask is about “herding” or “hunting” behavior – some breeds will take out after a cat or rabbit or squirrel.

    My late dog, Dutch, thought that bicycles were just very mobil squashed looking cattle. It took me AGES to convince him that they were NOT items to chase. And even as an elderly canine gentleman, his ears were forward and he was ‘tracking’ any passing cyclist.

  6. @threadbndr: LOL!!! That’s so funny. Anna H. Banana, the German shepherd par excellence, was convinced that she was a cave wolf, cars were buffalo, and trucks were mammoths. She wished to bring them all down by the oil pan and carry them home to the lair. If it was dusk or after dark and their eyes were glowing, that was REALLY exciting!

    Then there was the garbage truck, some sort of gigantic predator trying to steal our ripening food stores away from the Territory…o….m….g….! If she could have got that thing by the jugular, she would have been very, very pleased.

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