Adopting A Shelter/Rescue Dog

Dogs of all breeds, mixes, sizes and types are always available for adoption from shelters or rescues. The selection changes daily, unfortunately. The decision to adopt a “recycled” dog can be a positive one if careful choices are made and a commitment is made to train and socialize the new family member.

Adopting A Shelter Dog

Decisions, Decisions

In order to make your shelter adoption a more informed and less of an emotional decision, certain requirements need to be listed before the trip to the shelter:

Size Considerations:

Large, medium, or small dog? Keep in mind size does not necessarily designate space required or energy level.

Coat Considerations:

Long, short, one that will require grooming/shaving? Keep in mind short-coated dogs such as Labs and Dalmatians shed JUST AS MUCH if not more than longer coated dogs such as Golden Retrievers or Shelties.

Which Breed:

Purebred? Mix? If a purebred is desired, make sure ALL breed traits are researched – EACH breed has good and bad traits, and those are variable depending on the person!

Activity Level:

Usually if the breed or mix is known, the level of activity will be able to be ascertained, as well.


Puppy or adult or senior? Most dogs find their way to shelters between the ages of 6 months and 1 year of age, because that is the worst behaved time of a dog’s life – their adolescence; they WILL misbehave more during that time period. Adult dogs can also come to you with excess baggage of behavior problems from their previous life, but usually they can be worked through. Seniors can sometimes have age-related health or behavior problems, but can be a wonderful laid-back companion.

Visiting The Dog Shelter

When looking for a dog, remember that WYSIWYG!! A shy, cowering dog will take just as much work as an overpowering, in-your-face dog. Dogs in rows of cages or kennel runs may still act like a pack; each one of them may be at their gate barking and clawing! Take each dog you are interested in off to a quieter area away from the masses to evaluate him behaviorally. Ask the shelter worker about the dog. Look into his eyes – I really believe in honest eyes; they can reveal a lot about the dog. A dog that is interested in play, especially fetching, is a very good candidate; you have the start of a good, positive bridge of understanding. Look for a dog that will come up to you – one that is interested in interacting with you. An aloof dog will most likely remain aloof. All family members should meet the adoptive prospect – even down to the smallest child. If the dog shows any fear or aggression to anyone, the adoption should NOT take place!

Bringing Your New Dog Home

Establish an area for the new dog that will keep him AND your house safe. The safest way to do this is with a crate (cage). Most shelter dogs spent their time in a cage or a run, so the transition to a crate at your home should run smoothly. A confined area such as a crate will greatly assist with potty training [see article] and give the dog a safe, comfortable place. Time in your house outside the crate should ALWAYS be supervised for several weeks to several months, depending on the dog. The only factor regarding supervision or lack of is your observation of the dog’s behavior; age, breed and size are not. Feeding times should be in the crate at first, as well as daily times in the crate even while you are around. Dogs quickly learn when they are crated only when nobody is at home, and some can develop separation anxiety. No matter how old the new dog is when you adopt him, he should ALWAYS be treated like a puppy and not trusted with ANYTHING until he earns it. You have worked too hard for your house and the stuff in it to have it destroyed by a rescue dog!

No matter how old the dog is, potty training should ALWAYS follow the same pattern: outside ON LEASH, with voice command to eliminate, praise during elimination and freedom in the house ONLY after elimination outside. The length of time you will need to do this will depend on the dog – it will vary from days to months (see potty training article).

One of the most important things to do with your new dog is to enroll in an obedience class. This class is important for many reasons: · establishes a working relationship and bond between owner and dog · socializes dog to other people and other dogs · helps to reinforce basic training, even if the dog seems to know the basics · helps to teach the dog that he must comply even if many distractions are present.

No Excuses. Period.

DO NOT make excuses for your new dog! You may observe he is shy around men or strangers; many people think the dog was abused before they got him. He may have had a scary experience, but generally, if you don’t know for a fact he was, he was probably just under socialized. To sit on the excuse, “Oh, be careful with him, he was abused as a puppy,” is an immobilizing thought. Instead of carefully avoiding things that frighten your dog, give that man/stranger an irresistible treat to give to your dog every time they meet; you may be able to work through the problem! What may have happened in your rescue dog’s past doesn’t need to cripple him for life!

Unless you worked closely with a shelter veterinarian before the adoption, the first trip after acquiring your new dog should be to a veterinarian. The dog should be evaluated health-wise before he establishes himself in your home and in your heart. The veterinarian will check a stool sample (you need to take a fresh teaspoonful with you) for intestinal parasites, do a general exam, and check him for heartworm (if he is old enough). The veterinarian will also evaluate his vaccination history (which you also need to take to the appointment) and give him any vaccinations he is lacking.

Introducing Your Shelter Dog To Other Pets

If you have other pets, part of your pre-adoption evaluation should be to observe how your dog-of-choice interacts with other animals. Ask shelter workers what this dog is like, but also see for yourself. Introduce another shelter resident the dog is not familiar with – with the help of a shelter worker, of course! If you have cat(s), ask a shelter worker to bring out a cat who tolerates dogs. Some shelters will allow you to bring your pets for an introduction, others may require it.

If the potential adoptee has a problem with the type of pet(s) you already have a home, that dog should NOT go home with you, UNLESS you are willing to spend A LOT of time with introductions and supervision, as well as A LOT of training and socialization time. You must also realize that a dog- or cat-aggressive dog MAY NOT ever change!

Once you have established that your adoptee seems to tolerate other animals, you will still have to invest time in introduction and supervision of the new dog and existing pets at home. Introductions should happen in controlled settings. The new dog should be ON LEASH, and your existing pets should also be controlled in some way: cat in carrier (you could be bitten or scratched if you hold the cat for the new dog to meet!), other dog(s) on leash – one at a time. Some raised hackles are normal even in friendly introductions. Keep leashes fairly loose or leave dragging on the ground, but always be ready to pull each dog away from the other should an argument ensue. If a fight starts, NEVER put your hands anywhere near to grab dogs! Instead, throw a blanket over them or use a chair to separate them by wedging in between. These introductions work best when a person handles each animal.

The new dog should NOT be alone in the house with your existing pets until you have carefully monitored and controlled their interactions for a period of time. That time period could be anywhere from a couple days to a month or more. The new dog should be crated when you are not able to supervise. The crate can still be in an area where your existing pets can approach to sniff; however, this also needs to be supervised. Your pets could tease the new one, or the new one could be somewhat cage aggressive/protective and lunge and growl.

With careful planning, preparation and training, adopting a shelter or rescue dog can be one that will work for life.

Check-list For Adopting A Shelter Dog:

  • DON’T USE YOUR HEART in decisions! Think your choices CAREFULLY through.
  • Make sure the new adoptee will work in your home – with other pets, men, women, children, WHATEVER and WHOEVER he will encounter in his new life with you.
  • CAREFULLY research: breed choices, size, coat, etc.
  • CAREFULLY consider WHY you want a dog, and WHY you want a shelter/rescue dog. After all, the idea is to have adoptions WORK! · Consider WHAT you want to do with this dog: vegetate on the couch, long walks, competition flyball or Frisbee, obedience or agility competition? Use this to help in your decisions.
  • Do you want all that comes with a puppy? Or would you rather start with a dog that is a little more mature?
  • Do NOT adopt with the idea that you will change a dog! You will be able to work with what you have, but generally a dog is the way he’ll be, UNLESS you plan to invest a lot of time and money in training, with no guarantees.
  • Do NOT hesitate to engage the help of an experienced behaviorist or trainer to help ease the adoptee’s transition into your home and your life.

Ask Your Dog Training QuestionsStill Have Questions?

We’d love to answer them! Feel free to contact us regarding any shelter dog adoption questions, or canine Q&A in general!

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Junior Watson

Junior is the resident "Top Dog". He enjoys walks in the park, chasing invisible cats, and of course... bacon strips!

9 CommentsLeave a comment

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  • Hi, I am thinking of adopting a lab/Samoyed mix from a foster home. The foster care person has had him for six months due several health issues. All is resolved. I know the foster care person, she is my neighbor. My concern is his commitment to her, can this be a problem for me if I do adopt him. He does not like other dogs, can I help him with that by going to an obedience class, I am experienced in that area. Your article is very helpful and informative. By the way he is four years old. Thank you for your advice. Darlene

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  • You were incredibly right in saying that one should not use our hearts when choosing the perfect rescue dog(s) for your family. As Ian Dunbar says, “The worst is impulse adoption, where the adopter has given the responsibility no thought…the more homework you do, the more prepared you’ll be”. I believe that we all know how it feels to fall head over heels in love with those first puppy-dog eyes that we come across, however we have to make sure that this potential loved one will be a good fit for the home (especially if there are young kids involved). I think you did a wonderful job explaining what we should look for and the most appropriate steps that should be taken prior to rescuing a puppy!

  • Very good post! You made some really valid points and suggested some good tips on adopting a shelter dog for the first time. I especially enjoyed going over the checklist that you came up with and how you emphasized not to lead with your heart, which is a very common thing to do with first time pet owners.

  • I liked your tip of taking a dog that you’re interested in a quieter area to see how they truly are. My wife and I are interested in adopting a dog for our family and we want to make sure that it’s the right dog for us. I’ll be sure to take the dog to a quiet area once we find one that we’re interested in adopting.

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