Summer is a wonderful time of year to start raising a puppy, and there's no shortage of pet possibilities in your local shelter.
But how do you choose?
Pick a puppy with your head, not your heart. Before you step into a shelter, be clear in your mind the kind of dog you want: small, medium or large, long-haired or short.
Once you've narrowed the field, puppy-testing can help you home in on the one who'll be right for you.
One by one, take each of the puppies you're considering to a safe, secure area away from others. Observe how the puppy reacts to the change -- tentative exploration is OK, but beware the puppy who's so terrified he won't move. Look, too, for how busy a puppy is: Playfulness is fine, but full-out go-go-go is maybe a little too much.
The puppy who's probably going to be the best for you is going to be "medium" in personality. He may not be the smartest in the litter, but he may be more interested in your point of view than the one who is the smartest. He has moxie, but not so much he'll drive you crazy. He's willing to try new things -- he's no shrinking violet -- but he'll like them better if you are with him.
Here are a few simple tests to help you evaluate a puppy:
-- Interest in people. Put the puppy down facing you. Walk a few steps away, bend over and call to him. (Bending over makes you less intimidating.) If the puppy seems a little tentative, crouch and open your arms. You're not "ordering" the pup -- he doesn't know what you want, after all. You're trying to see how attracted he is to a nice person. So be nice. Call gently, click your tongue, rattle your keys.
The medium-personality puppy you want will probably trot over happily, perhaps after a slight hesitation. The too-bossy puppy may come over and nip at you, and the shy one may not move except to shiver in terror. The one who doesn't care a bit about people may go investigate a bug in the corner of the room.
-- Accepting authority. Gently roll the puppy on his back and hold him there with your hand. The medium-personality pup you're looking for will fuss a little, settle down, and maybe even lick your hand. Too-bossy pups usually keep struggling, and the shyest ones freeze in terror.
-- Praise and petting response. Praise and petting are integral parts of training and communicating with your dog, and finding a puppy who wants affection enough to earn it is important. Talk to the puppy lovingly and stroke him, but let him decide whether he stays with you or not -- don't hold him.
The medium-personality puppy will probably lick your hands and be glad to stay with you. Rolling over is fine, and don't be surprised if he urinates a little -- called "submissive urination," this is a kind of a canine compliment, a recognition that you're "top dog." A puppy who bites hard is probably dominant and unsocialized, and the one who wants nothing to do with you probably isn't people-oriented enough. Stay away, too, from the one who's terrified of being touched.
Talk to the shelter staff and volunteers, and compare your observations. The best shelters offer adoption counseling and keep the animals in their care socialized, so the shelter staff can offer excellent advice on picking the right puppy.
Choosing the right pet can be very difficult when you're in a shelter thinking that the puppy you don't pick isn't going to get chosen at all. Don't play the guilt game. Pick a healthy puppy with a temperament that's likely to produce a good pet. You're still saving a life, still providing a good home.
Your chances of success are better if you take your time and pick the best puppy you can.
CYBERLINKS: Dr. Evan Blair has put together a wonderful collection of information and links on his homepage, ExoticNet (http://www.mindspring.com/(tilde)palidian/ExoticNet.html). Blair, a veterinarian, is a lifelong bird-lover, and as a result, his avian pages are very thorough, but he also does a credible job with areas on other small mammals and exotics, such as ferrets, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, reptiles and rabbits.
Gina Spadafori, the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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