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Frequently people are adopting dogs from rescue shelters. Adopting any adult dog can be a bit of a challenge in that it's hard to know the dog's history. Some rescue dogs have a history of abuse and/or neglect. The process of meeting and choosing a dog doesn't give the dog or the people a great environment to get to know each other. Dog's can sometimes be different at a shelter.

Given the, sometimes, unnatural process of getting to know a possible future adopted dog; Are there ways, when choosing a dog, to see if the dog has problem behavior?

This question originally discussed looking for potential health problems and signs of abuse when adopting a dog - it was separated into two questions.

What danger signs indicate health issues when aquiring a new dog?

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One additional thing to keep in mind is that many pet shelters accept that your adopted pet may have unforseen problems, as you say they can sometimes behave differently at a shelter versus at your home. The policy will vary between shelters but for example the RSPCA Adoption Policy for the ACT in Australia includes:

While we hope your pet selection process is successful and permanent, we do offer a fourteen-day period to ascertain acknowledged behavioural abnormalities during which time depending on the problem a refund may be available. During this period you may surrender the pet for any reason and no charge will apply to the surrender.

A local shelter that I'm familiar with doesn't offer any sort of refund policy but does make it clear you're welcome to try adopting a different pet if things just don't work out. The nervous reaction of a dog (or any other pet) can be a sign of abuse, but it's no reason to totally avoid them and instead look of it as the chance to give them a great new life full of affection. In my experience sometimes pets that have been abused in the past will form an even greater bond with you, given some time.

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From my experiences with dogs and animals in general, the signs are quite easy to spot. The animal's body language should speak for itself. Backing away when approaching the animal, nervous twitch, the eyes, the tail etc.

I guess it's easy for me to say and not explain it thoroughly yet that's the general explanation. Always let the animal approach "you" and leave your hands by your side so that it will "check you out" and no sudden movements. If you feel the animal will strike, best to just back away and use a gentle voice.

Added note: It's not the same thing when you're standing in the back of a "horse". You better have some pretty quick reflexes when that puppy "bucks"!

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There are a few tests you can do to assess the dog's behavior in the shelter. All following tests are taken from the "Meet your Match" dog character assessment guide by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

First of all, ask if the dog was tested for aggressive behavior. It's not your job to test for (read: provoke) aggressive behavior in a dog you don't even know. This should be standard procedure when receiving a new dog (shelters don't want their customers to be bitten), but some shelters might not do it by default or might not know how to do it properly. Ask if the dog displayed any problematic behavior while housed there.

Next, ask if they have a room with video surveillance. This will be needed for at least one test. Have a ball and a second toy (like a plushie or tug toy) in your pocket (your hands must be free).

Separation anxiety

Ask the shelter if you may be monitoring the room with video surveillance.

  • One staff member should bring the dog into the room without speaking to it.
  • The staff member should leave the room without interacting with the dog.
  • Wait for 4 minutes.

If the dog stays at the door for the whole time, maybe even scratching and whining, it probably has separation anxiety. If it freezes or hides away, it has some other form of anxiety.

Bad manners / social anxiety

After the time for the first test is over, enter the room and greet the dog in a friendly voice. Keep standing straight up for at least 2 minutes (no bowing down, crouching or sitting down to interact with it). If the dog jumps at you, scratches you or forcefully bumps into you, it has bad manners that are hard to train it out of.

If the dog runs or hides away when you enter the room, has it's tail between the legs, avoids your gaze and doesn't approach you for 2 minutes, it has social anxiety.

Toy addiction

Get the prepared toys into the room and start playing fetch with the dog. If it doesn't want to play fetch, play with the other toy. Play very enthusiastically for a minute or two, then abruptly stop playing and hold the toy in your hand. Do not speak to the dog and do not pull the toy away, but move it with the dog if it continues tugging it. Stay passive for 2 whole minutes or until the dog loses interest in the toy. If the dog still tugs the toy and animates you to play after 2 minutes, it is toy addicted.


Keep in mind that these tests cannot find all problematic behaviors or signs of abuse. They just uncover the most severe problems. The smaller problems are just as individual as abuse can be, but most of the time they are not so severe that you as the owner cannot work through them. A honest talk about the dog's behavior in the shelter can be very informative, too. And don't forget that dogs can change their behavior once they are in a different environment.

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