Adopting a Shelter Dog

Cheryl Fenton writer

Once you have chosen the right dog to adopt, you can feel good knowing that you saved an animal’s life while adding pleasure to your own. But with so many animal rescue shelters to visit and an abundance of information online, making the right choice can be daunting.

“[Rescuing a dog] is as good as the group doing it,” says former Wellesley resident Sarah Wilson, author, founder of, and a long-time professional dog trainer. “If they know dogs and are as committed to the adopter as the adoptee, it can be a godsend for everyone.”

Here are 10 tips to help you think about the responsibilities of dog ownership before adopting one.

one Locate a Reputable Shelter
If the rescue center is local, take time to visit. Wilson notes that if it’s packed to the rafters with animals, that’s a red flag. Also, your nose knows. If the place smells worse than normal “pet odor,” dog-ear that page in your notebook as a bad choice.

two Do Your Homework
Behavioral problems are a valid concern, since some rescued animals are from abusive or neglectful backgrounds. Ask questions about the history and current disposition of your future dog. Find out why it was surrendered and, if the dog was returned to the shelter by a previous adopter, ask why. Jeri Jarvis, owner of Absolutely Pawsitive in Wellesley, notes that unless you have experience in training dogs or are willing to make a financial investment in a good trainer, dogs with behavioral problems should be avoided.

three Returning Rover
Be sure the shelter will take a dog back without question or penalty. If one shelter doesn’t, find one that does. “No one wants a problem to happen, but they do, and that’s always hard enough without having a shelter refuse to take back the animal,” says Wilson.

four Schedule a Home Visit
Most shelters send personnel to make an at-home visit, but Wilson warns against criteria that is too strict. “It’s a red flag if they make adoption incredibly difficult,” she says. “Some [shelter] groups make complex demands before sending an animal to a new home—for example, forbidding the use of a crate, or insisting on one; or training versus no training. While I support thorough home reviews, it can go too far.”

five Suit Your Lifestyle 
Make sure that the shelter knows and understands the temperaments of each of their dogs. Then describe the personality you’re looking for. It may be that the Golden Retriever mix they have is perfect for your super active lifestyle, while the hound mix might be more laid back.

six Determine Your Breed
If it’s a purebred pooch you desire, don’t give up on adoption. Although the majority of shelter dogs are mutts, check online for shelters that specialize in specific breeds.

seven Looks Aren’t Everything
Fantasize about looks. Fall in love with personality. “Many great dogs have ‘plain brown wrappers’ and are picked last,” says Wilson. “That cute one may be a handful to live with while that less flashy pup may be the best thing since Lassie.”

eight Kids Are a Factor
Before your little one starts picking out cute chew toys, make sure the shelter will sell dogs to homes with children. Some won’t because of the unpredictable behavior of some dogs, especially those from a shelter.

nine Determine Potential Health Risks 
Know how to spot potential problems, like a dull coat (not the same as matting, which is a result of poor grooming) or patches of hair loss. Is the dog too skinny? Posture hunched? These are first-glance signs of poor health. “Look for a low energy level,” says Amanda Brown, vet technician at Wellesley-Natick Veterinary Hospital. “They’ll be down and out because they’re in a cage, but when they see people, their energy level should become pretty high.”

ten Visit the Vet 
Most rescue dogs have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and de-wormed to some degree. Obtain the necessary health records and bring them (and your dog) in to your vet, preferably the day you bring it home. “Shelter dogs have risk of heartworms, fleas, worms, and parasites. You’ll want to check them out as soon as you can, especially if you have other animals,” says Brown. 

© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher

Summer 2024