Dog Adoption 101

What you need to know about rescuing a pet from a shelter

Dog adoption can be a wonderful experience. But you need to pick wisely. With more than half of the approximately 6 million dogs and cats that wind up in shelters each year facing euthanasia, returning a pet that just didn't work out may mean a tragic end for the animal. Here are some tips for making the right choice – and becoming a true hero for some lucky dog.

Realize the dog may not be himself. "Dogs in a shelter are at their worst point in life. They may act more frightened or excited than normal. They won't behave the way they will in their new home," explains Sharon Sakson, author of Paws and Reflect, the Healing Power of Dogs (Alyson Books, December 2007). Try to arrange time alone with the animal. Walk him on a leash. How does he react to strange noises and sights, other dogs or people? It's a good sign if the dog shows affection when you make eye contact. If you're uncertain, come back the next day to see whether the dog remembers you and is more responsive.

Know what you can afford. Ask yourself whether you can afford a dog, factoring in the cost of food, grooming, boarding and checkups, as well as unforeseen emergency care for the rest of the animal's life – possibly 15 years or more. Some shelters charge as much as $300 as an adoption fee, but your pet goes home vaccinated, dewormed, sometimes even spayed or neutered and microchipped–crucial essentials for which you'd otherwise pay a veterinarian.

Learn that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Trainers, shelter workers and vets all know older dogs make wonderful companions. People who work full time may want to pass up energetic puppies for a mature, low-key canine, already house-trained and less likely to chew your favorite shoes.

Ask questions! Speak with the worker directly responsible for the dog's care. How is the animal with kids and other dogs? Can he be left alone without wreaking havoc? Was the dog a stray, or did its owner give him up and why? Is he used to soft canned food or dry kibble? Is he housebroken? Can I foster the dog for a few days in my home before adopting?

Finally, if you're refused a dog adoption, find out why. Have the reasons explained so that you can make the changes necessary to become a responsible pet owner.

Return to Top