Pet Care

Adopting a Shelter Dog

Fluffy white dog held by woman

Shelters have lovable dogs and cats of all shapes, sizes and ages. Your chances of finding a wonderful companion who matches your lifestyle and family are excellent! About 25% of shelter dogs are purebred. The rest make up the best selection anywhere of unique, one-of-a-kind mixed breeds, many of whom have already lived with families and have the basic social skills they need to become an enjoyable part of your household.

Why Adopt a Dog from a Shelter?

You Can Help Save Lives

One of the most rewarding aspects of adopting a shelter dog is the simple fact that you’re saving a life and giving a deserving animal a new home. It feels great to help an animal in need, and after living in a shelter, your new dog will be especially appreciative of the wonderful life you’re going to give him. But that’s not all—your adoption fee will benefit other animals, too. By adopting a dog, you can support the shelter’s good work in your community and help care for many homeless pets.

Shelter Dogs Make Great Pets

Many dogs end up in shelters because of circumstances beyond their control. They were victims of a death in the family, illness, divorce or a move that didn’t include them. Some were displaced by a new baby. Others had pet parents who didn’t learn how to train them. And there are those who were left at a shelter because of a behavior problem that their pet parents didn’t try to or weren’t able to resolve.

But make no mistake—a “second-hand” dog is in no way second-rate. Most shelter dogs available for adoption are healthy, affectionate animals. Any dog—young or old, mixed breed or purebred—will likely need some training or retraining to learn how to fit into his new household and become your cherished companion. However, most shelters evaluate a dog’s behavior when he arrives, and this information can help you determine what kind of training your new dog needs. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated volunteers and staff, many shelters can even give dogs a head start on housetraining and basic obedience before they’re adopted.

Another advantage to adopting is that shelter dogs are a real bargain! An adoption fee is much lower than the cost of buying a dog from a pet store or breeder. Most shelter dogs are spayed or neutered before adoption, so you won’t have to pay for the cost of surgery. Almost all shelters give their animals thorough physical exams and provide vaccinations. Some shelters even microchip their animals so that if they get lost, they can find their way home to their new pet parents.

How to Choose a Match of a Lifetime

A growing number of shelters have an ASPCA® adoption program called Meet Your Match® Canine-alityTM and Puppy-alityTM. This program is designed to help shelters make successful and permanent adoptions by matching adopters with the most compatible dogs. It not only makes adopting a shelter dog more fun, but it also helps adopters go home with the kind of dog they dream of having. The Meet Your Match program has two key parts:

  1. Assessment Individual dogs’ behavioral tendencies are assessed with the Canine-ality and Puppy-ality “personality” tests. The dogs are then categorized into one of nine different personality types, such as the Life of the Party, the Busy Bee and the Constant Companion.
  2. Adopter survey Adopters fill out surveys so that shelter staff can learn about their expectations for a new dog and the role they want him to play in their lives. Then the staff uses the survey to help adopters make the best match possible.

If a shelter you plan on visiting doesn’t use the Meet Your Match program, you can find the adopter survey online. Before visiting the shelter, fill out the survey to get a better idea of the kind of dog you’d like. In addition, you’ll need to go to the shelter prepared with your own questions and screening criteria.

Before You Go to the Shelter

  • Identify your needs Are you a single adult looking for a dog who can go everywhere with you? Are you a parent looking for a dog who loves children? Do you have other dogs or cats at home? Do you enjoy grooming or do you want a dog with an easy-care coat? Do you have a quiet, mostly sedentary lifestyle or are you active and looking for an exercise partner? What size and breeds of dogs does your landlord or co-op board allow? Do you want a dog who will love going to the dog park? What size of dog would fit best in your home, car and yard? What age? Puppies can be irresistible, but raising them properly takes a lot of time and hard work. Most adult dogs only require a bit of basic obedience training and a house-training refresher.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask Shelter staff members sometimes have access to information about a dog’s past, and they can often provide insight into a dog’s personality. Before you head to the shelter, make a list of questions to ask about the dogs you’re interested in:
    • What do you know about this dog’s history? Where did he come from? Was he surrendered by a guardian, found as a stray or transferred from another shelter?
    • If he was surrendered by his former guardian, may I see the intake information? Most shelters ask people surrendering an animal to provide detailed information about the pet, including his medical history, likes and dislikes, and behavioral characteristics.
    • Did you conduct a behavior evaluation on this dog? If so, what were the results?
    • What have you noticed about him since he’s been at the shelter? How would you describe his personality and behavior? Does he like other dogs? Does he like children? How is he with cats? Is he easy to walk on a leash? What do the volunteers think of him? Is he affectionate, aloof, calm, energetic, fearful, shy, outgoing…? Ask any and all questions that are relevant to your particular needs.

During Your Shelter Visit

  • Walk through the kennels Walk through the entire kennel area at least once to find some dogs who appeal to you. Stand a few feet away from the ones you like and watch how they react to other people. Then spend a few minutes greeting the dogs you’ve chosen through their kennel doors.
    • Look for signs of friendliness, like pawing, wagging, wiggling, an eager approach and pressing against the front of the kennel. (Please see our article on Canine Body Language for detailed information and pictures that will help you interpret dog body language.)
    • If you have a family with young children or an active lifestyle, you may want to steer clear of dogs who hang back in their kennels, too afraid to greet you or others. Some fearful dogs take a lot of work, may not adapt well to your home and may snap or bite if they feel threatened.
    • If you don’t have children, don’t rule out a dog you’re interested in just because he’s shy. Keep in mind that you’re seeing him in a very stressful environment and that most dogs behave better in a home than they do in a shelter. Perhaps the shy dog just arrived at the shelter and is upset by all the commotion. Ask to visit with him outside of the kennel area so you can get a better idea of who he really is.
    • Like dogs who retreat to the back of their kennel, a dog who’s jumping, barking or spinning like a maniac in his kennel may just be reacting to the stress of shelter life. It’s a good idea to visit with such a dog in a calmer area. While you’re interacting with him, note whether the dog seems calmer and friendlier once out of the kennel area.
    • If a dog freezes, stares at you stiffly, growls or raises his hackles, move on. These are all signs of an unfriendly and possibly aggressive dog.
  • Talk to the staff In well-run shelters, particularly those with regular volunteers, staff members usually become familiar with the personality of each resident dog through daily interactions and volunteer reports. Ask all of the questions you brought with you, and ask for the staff’s personal impressions of the dogs you’re considering.
  • Spend quality time with your top choices Some shelters let you walk the dogs around the grounds, while others let you meet dogs in their kennels or in a visiting room. Take advantage of all opportunities to interact with the dogs you’re considering. As you visit with each dog, think about your list of expectations and needs. A very social dog who persistently seeks out your affection, enjoys lots of attention and seems to adore petting might be a good choice for a family with children. This kind of dog would also be great for someone who wants to do animal-assisted therapy and take their dog to visit schools, hospitals or nursing homes. An older dog who’s a little more independent might be a better choice for someone who needs to be away from home for long hours. An energetic dog would be wonderful for someone who does a lot of jogging, hiking or biking.
    • Start with quiet time For your first few minutes with a dog, just sit quietly with him. Don’t touch or talk to him, and see what he chooses to do. Shelters are noisy, distracting places—but does he eventually approach you and work to get your attention? Or does he focus on other things instead? After sitting quietly for a few minutes, pet and talk to the dog if he’s friendly. Does he seem to like being stroked and touched? If you stop petting him, does he walk away or ask for more? If you’re looking for an independent companion, a dog who doesn’t seem especially eager to get your attention might suit you well. However, if you’re looking for a very social, interactive dog, one who can’t get enough of you might be the best fit.
    • Take the dog for a walk When you take a dog for a walk, don’t worry too much about jumping up and pulling on-leash. Most dogs will do these things if they haven’t been trained to behave differently, especially if they’ve been cooped up in a kennel for days, weeks or months. Just be sure you’re able to hang on and gently control the dog. As you walk, take note of his demeanor. Is he eager to greet people you encounter? Does he seem to take outdoor sights and sounds in stride? If he barks, lunges, growls, cowers, freezes in terror or trembles uncontrollably when he sees people, other dogs or cars that pass, he may not have been thoroughly socialized as a puppy. Be warned: it will take considerable time and effort to retrain and socialize this kind of dog—and there’s no guarantee that his behavior will improve.
    • Play with the dog Try to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war, chase or fetch. Play for several minutes, letting the dog get excited and energized. Then abruptly stop playing and put the toy away. Observe how long it takes the dog to calm back down and resume socializing with you. Ideally, the dog will calm down within a couple of minutes. If he takes much longer than that, you may have a sports champion on your hands but perhaps not the most easygoing house pet.
    • Make sure the dog adores your kids If you have children, it’s important to take some extra precautions when choosing a new dog. You want him to adore your kids as much as you do. If possible, choose a dog who has lived with kids before and enjoyed lots of pleasant experiences with them. Bring your children with you to the shelter, and look for a dog who seems to like them at least as much as he likes adults. In fact, it’s best to adopt a dog who prefers kids. If a dog moves away from your children, avoids or ignores them, flinches at their touch or seems anxious or upset by their voices or movements, he’s NOT the dog for your family. Your kids must come first, so you need to find a dog who doesn’t just tolerate them well—he should love it when they play with him and touch him all over. When meeting a dog you’re considering, do some things that your kids might do when interacting with him. Try hugging him around the neck. Gently poke, prod and push him. Touch his ears, tail and paws. In response, the dog should just wag happily and seek more attention. If he gets stiff, tucks his tail, growls, shows his teeth, quickly retreats or whips his head around toward your hand when you touch him, he’s not the right choice for you. Another important thing to watch out for is possessiveness. Ask the shelter staff to show you how the dog reacts when they take away his food, toys and chew bones. A dog who becomes aggressive when eating or playing with toys is not a safe choice for a family with children.

Making Your Choice

  • Put your choice on hold and come back It’s helpful to see a dog on more than one occasion. If the shelter allows a 24-hour hold, take advantage of it. The second time you visit, bring a close friend or your spouse. If you have children who haven’t yet met the dog, bring them. If you have another dog, bring her. Most shelters strongly encourage everyone who’s going to live with the dog to come and meet him.
  • Use your head as well as your heart Although your initial emotions and reactions to a dog are a good starting place in your selection process, please don’t let them be your only guide. Your new dog will be a part of your family for years to come, so base your decision on your objective observations of the dog’s apparent physical and behavioral health as well.
  • Hire a behaviorist or trainer to help you If this is your first dog or if you’ve had bad experiences with selecting the right dog in the past, don’t hesitate to ask an expert for guidance. Many Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) and Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs) have extensive experience with hundreds of dogs and are usually well versed in various methods for evaluating them. Having their objective, expert assessment of your chosen dog can bring you peace of mind. Please see Finding Professional Help to locate a qualified animal behavior expert in your area.

Additional Tips

  • Have patience and visit often Shelters take in new dogs every day. If you didn’t strike gold on your first visit to a shelter, don’t give up! Several repeat visits may be necessary to find the dog of your dreams. You can also periodically check local shelters’ websites, which may have pictures and descriptions of dogs available for adoption. There are also numerous online search tools, such as www.petfinder.com, which display the profiles of shelter dogs who need new homes.
  • Consider breed rescue If you really have your heart set on a certain breed of dog, you can repeatedly visit your local shelters until the purebred dog you’re looking for shows up. If it’s a relatively common breed you want, like a Labrador retriever, a Chihuahua or an American pit bull terrier, you can be sure it won’t be a long wait. But if you have your heart set on a petit basset griffon vendéen or a Norwegian elkhound, you might be better off contacting breed rescues. The people who run these organizations are usually breed experts and can help you make the best possible match. If you’re not in any hurry to adopt, consider fostering dogs for a breed rescue group first. This is a great way to find out if a particular breed is the right one for you before you make a commitment.
  • Consider volunteering If you’re not sure what kind of dog you want, try volunteering at a local shelter. Dedicating some time to a shelter is a wonderful way to help your city’s homeless animals, and once you’ve handled a wide variety of dogs, you’ll have a much better idea of which kind best suits your needs. You may be able to foster dogs for the shelter, too. Sooner or later, one will steal your heart and fit perfectly into your household.