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Looking for a Dog on Craigslist? Run Screaming If You See Any of These Red Flags

Craigslist is like an adoption agency with no standards or oversight. So if you're going that route to adopt your next dog, be extra careful.

 |  Jul 31st 2012  |   76 Contributions


When I first started dog training, the vast majority of the dogs I saw came from pet stores, rescues, shelters, family and friends' "oops" litters, backyard breeders, or, rarely, responsible breeders. In the last couple of years, I've seen an increasing number of dogs being obtained on Craigslist, with many (read: most) of them with some pretty intense behavior problems.

Craigslist appeals to many prospective pet owners because the dogs are usually less expensive than the options above (often the dogs are offered free), there is no waiting period (the listing party usually wants to get rid of the dog yesterday), and, as opposed to adopting from many rescue organizations, there are relatively few requirements. Those that are in place are pretty much a joke -- nobody is doing a home visit or checking personal or veterinary references. Essentially, Craigslist is like an adoption agency with no standards or oversight.

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The vast majority of the Craigslist adoptees I see do not come to my practice for a puppy or basic manners class. They usually have relatively severe behavior problems that require weeks, months, or years of dedicated, active behavior modification, plus lifetime management in some situations. They are not "easy" dogs, and they certainly aren't the Lassie dogs my clients hope for -- dogs that will be able to go camping or traveling with the family, hang out at Timmy's football game, allow baby Abigail to take a nap while resting her head on the dog, and take leisurely strolls through their suburban neighborhood. 

How to read Craigslist ads

I sat down recently with some friends who are not dog pros. Some of them are pet owners, and some hope to be but do not yet have the appropriate living circumstances to make dog ownership practical. We looked through some Craigslist ads, and I found that we had a very different process in evaluating the ads we looked at.

Invariably, the non-dog pro process went as follows:

  • Is there a picture? No? Move along.
  • Is the picture cute? If yes, proceed. If no, move to the next ad with a picture.
  • Scan the article for an adoption fee. If the dog is inexpensive and immediately available, proceed.
  • Finally, read the description. Take it at face value.

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Not that the Lomonacos are considering a third dog, but if I were looking for a pet on Craigslist, my process would be more like:

  • Sit down, make a list of deal-breakers (size, age, sex, good with cats/kids/other dogs, etc.)
  • Review all ads, picture or not. I can get pictures later if the deal-breakers are all in place.
  • Read the description. READ BETWEEN THE LINES.
  • Check out the adoption fee. I'm willing to pay a significant bit of money for a good dog with the deal-breakers in place, knowing that I'll save lots of money and stress in the long run by making a wise purchasing decision. Plus, adoption fees for dogs on Craigslist rarely go over $300.

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Now, the read-between-the-lines part is where many pet owners struggle. This requires some critical thinking! I pulled some descriptive phrases from a number of local Craigslist ads that seemed like red flags to me as a dog trainer. These may or may not be deal-breakers in the negative, but are certainly signs that further inquiry is required -- "What exactly do you mean by that?" and "Why is this a requirement?" are both legitimate questions to be asked. I hope that reviewing them will help you make a well-educated adoption decision. Some of this may be a little tongue-in-cheek, so consider yourself warned.

Craigslist red flags

  • Would prefer a house where someone is home all day --  Separation distress. I won't say separation anxiety, which is a somewhat rare clinical diagnosis, but this is a dog that may well chew through your couch, empty your refrigerator, be a Houdini who is good at breaking out of crates, pee on your bed, or eliminate throughout your house when left alone. Maybe you do work from home, but how will you contain this dog when you run out for groceries? What will you do with him when the family wants to take a vacation?
  • Needs a big yard -- Needs a lot of structured exercise. This dog may well enjoy playing in the yard (fetch, tug, appropriate play with other dogs, tracking, nosework), but will also need lots of structured exercise off the property through walking, jogging, biking, participation in dog sports, rollerblading, hiking, backpacking, etc. This ad should read: Needs an active family; couch potatoes need not apply!
  • Has lots of energy -- ATE OUR BED, pulls on the leash, chases the cat and passing cars, digs out from under/climbs over the fence, and likes jumping on guests and knocking them over.
  • Outside dog -- Usually indicates potty training issues or other behavior problems the family does not want to deal with in the home, including destructive chewing.
  • OK with kids, dogs, cats -- May or may not be true. Many pet owners do not know how to accurately read canine body language to assess social interactions. Don't take it at face value. Ask questions like: How many kids has he been around? What age ranges? What kind of play with children does he enjoy? What kind of other dogs does he like? How many other dogs has he played well with? How does he like to play with other dogs? How does he respond to cats at the vet's office or a friend's house? Often, dogs may enjoy the company of the kids, cats, and dogs they live with but react differently to those who are not members of the household.
  • Needs a firm hand/experienced owner/is dominant -- Untrained. This dog is likely impulsive (has not been taught appropriate leash, door, or greeting manners), and may like to countersurf. This may also be a sign that there are resource-guarding issues (possibly including food, space, toys, or people).
  • Very protective -- Again, worth asking what exactly this means. I've seen this descriptor include dogs who exhibited territorial aggression, leash reactivity, other-dog aggression, human aggression, and resource-guarding issues. Maybe the dog just barks when someone walks by the house, but maybe there is something more going on.
  • Is fine with other animals as long as she can be in charge -- A bully with other animals and may exhibit aggression. These dogs also tend not to do well in homes with same-sex dog pairings (male/male, female/female).
  • We are too busy and have to keep her in her crate all the time -- What does this dog do when the family is home and she is not crated? I understand crating when you're not around, but this dog's lack of exercise may be manifesting as destructive (chewing furniture, shoes, or toys) or obnoxious (demand barking, jumping, mouthing, or countersurfing) behaviors. I also wouldn't be surprised if this dog was not well potty trained. Ask why she is in the crate all the time!

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Perhaps I'm a skeptic. Maybe this post makes me sound like an awful person. But it's very hard to see really wonderful pet owners overwhelmed by adopting pets with behavior problems they were unaware of or poorly equipped to deal with. This culture clash frequently lends to stress and frustration for dogs and their owners, and at worst, leads to further rehomings and/or eventual euthanasia.

Think critically about what dog is right for your family -- and that may not be the cheapest or cutest or youngest or "free-est" dog. It's the right dog. The dog who doesn't just "tolerate" your kids, but LOVES them. The dog who can fulfill the role you want a family dog to fill, be that neighborhood walking companion, softball game mascot, hiking partner, or tent warmer.

Bringing a new dog into your home is a huge decision and deserving of careful deliberation -- remember that this new life may be in your family for ten or more years. Choose wisely! Ask questions and be a careful consumer. Your family and your dog will love you for it.

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