Well, you’ve done the prep, and it is time to meet your prospective companion animal. You’ll notice you say prospective, because until you have met this dog in the fur, you have NO BUSINESS thinking of it as your dog.
Before You Walk in the Door
You need to meet this dog with zero expectations. Throw out all of the emotions you have associated with looking for a dog. You are a Vulcan, observing with pure logic right now before you make your decision. Once you have removed all desire, walk in that door.
Where You Meet Your Dog
If you are at an animal shelter, chances are they have a room where people meet their dogs. Do everything you can to make sure that no one is going to be in that room besides you and the shelter worker. This is really important. You want this dog to be focusing on YOU. If you are looking at a rescue dog, the best place to meet him is at his foster’s house because you can see how the dog behaves in a home environment. If you can’t meet somewhere like this, refer to the section at the bottom of how to meet a dog in less-than-ideal circumstances.
What You Should Do First
First things first, you need to ignore the dog in question. Give her a chance to get her bearings, maybe sniff the room down. See how long it takes her to approach you, if she approaches you. If you have treats, this is a good way to figure out how treat motivated she is. If she spends a lot of time sniffing the perimeter, or trying to open the door, then you should expect a dog that is motivated by something other than food or human affection. If she comes straight to you, proceed to the next step.
Dog and Human Acknowledge Each Other’s Presence
I suggest presenting a relaxed palm for the dog to sniff and see how that goes over. If the dog is already all over you, licking your face, or swooning on its back and swatting you for tummy rubs, fine. But if the dog seems a little shy, the palm is a polite way to give the dog access. If you feel it’s appropriate, you can hazard a pet. Ask the shelter worker or foster mom where the dog likes to be petted. If they don’t know, for goodness sake stay away from the face and the belly. Gently behind the ears or delicately on the back is your best bets. DO NOT SCRATCH OR SCRITCH THIS DOG UNLESS YOU ARE 100% SURE IT WILL BE WELL RECEIVED. First of all, it’s rude. OK, that’s not really a concern right now. But it can be dangerous if a dog has areas where he’s sensitive. (Keep in mind, too, that the dog might have areas where he is sensitive now, but later might not be — e.g., has flea bite dermatitis and hot spots.) We’re all really excited about your potential new dog, so here’s a visual reminder.
Dogs Meeting Children
Don’t let your children meet the dog at the same time you do. Instead, you meet the dog first, THEN the kids get to meet her. If that means you have to have a friend come with you to keep your kids away from the dog for a while, do that. You need that time to evaluate the dog without the chaos of kids in the mix.
Dogs Meeting Other Dogs
It’s best to do this one on one at first, even if you have multiple dogs. If you know enough about both animals (from a foster mom or temperament evaluation in the case of the prospective adopteee) and are 100% sure things aren’t going to turn into a fight, dogs are better able to meet and evaluate each other off leash, or with the leash dropped. Your own anxiety and excitement go straight down the leash to your dog, and a tight leash inhibits normal polite dog body language. Even if you feel a leash is necessary, or shelter policy requires it, keep it loose and relaxed so both dogs can move. Watch everyone’s body language, you want them to present their sides, sniff butts, and maybe do a few circles with their sides to each other. If they play bow, lick each other, and keep generally soft, wiggly body language things are looking very friendly. If one dog is begging to play and the other one isn’t into it, it’s possible he’s just nervous, but it’s also possible you’re going to have a playful dog harassing a more low-key dog. This is especially true when you’re considering bringing a puppy, or adolescent dog home with an older dog, so be prepared to give them more low-key dog a place to get away from the action if he needs to.
Dogs Meeting Cats or Other Non-Dog Animals
Most of these animals are not going to want to go visit a prospective dog with you, so I’m assuming this meeting is going to happen in your home, possibly on an overnight visit. Ideally, you’ve selected a dog that’s already been around cats or small animals, so you’re reasonably sure things will work out. Tall baby gates are great for this because they can see and smell each other through the gate and you can see how interested they are in each other without giving them the potential to injure each other. You’ll need to be especially watchful of dogs with strong prey drive, and this is triply true if your cat or other small animal runs from dogs. It’s better to keep everyone separated by a gate when you’re there, and a closed door when you’re not, until you’re sure they’ll be alright together. Ideally, they’re not too interested, and they’re not really worried about each other, either. If your prospective dog is play bowing or exhibiting other play behavior that’s obnoxious to your small animal, you can work on that (or not, if the dog is gentle or small enough not to cause a concern and your small animal is tolerant). If you see any evidence of stalking behavior (think of how cats stalk a toy, slinking up while staring intently at it), you’re in trouble. Even if you don’t see actual stalking behavior, be concerned if a breed or mix known to be bad with small animals is too interested in yours. If you’re not sure about letting them out together, a basket muzzle can be a perfect temporary solution if you have time to train the dog to accept it.
Meeting a Dog in Less-Than-Ideal Circumstances
This happens despite our best efforts. You might meet your prospective dog in a crowded room full of dogs, or at a dog show at a pet store, or even in a parking lot. We urge you to do everything you can to make that not happen. Remember, you are considering committing to this dog for life. You need to get a chance to evaluate her in the environment with the fewest distractions and least stress. If you don’t, it’s going to be hard to know what you are dealing with.
Wow — despite your best efforts to stay calm, this has probably been an overwhelming emotional experience. Take a little time (maybe 24 hours?) to think over your decision if they group/shelter will let you. (Even a few hours will give you enough time to start thinking a bit more clearly, so if that’s all you can get, work with it.)