Adopting a Shelter Dog

According to American Humane out of every 100 dogs taken to an animal shelter, about 15 are reunited with their families, 25 are adopted, and the remainder – about 60 – are put down.  On a yearly basis, somewhere between three and five million dogs are euthanized.  The reasons vary for euthanasia, but the most common are shelter overcrowding, dog aggression, dog age, and dog illness.  There are no exact numbers because shelters are not required to keep records of the number of dogs they take in, the number they successfully send on to forever homes, and the number they kill.

shelter dog
Many shelters have adopted a policy that no animals are available for adoption until after the animal has been spayed or neutered.

Shelter Facts is dedicated to educating the public about shelter dogs, providing information to help convince people to adopt their next pet, rather than buying from a pet store.  They offer the following facts:

  • Number of dogs given to shelters annually:  8 – 10 million.
  • Number of Greyhounds killed annually in the racing industry:  20,000
  • Number of dogs in the United States:  52 million
  • Number of homes in the United States that include a dog:  33.9 million
  • Only about half of America’s unwanted pets are taken to a shelter.  The remainder are left to wander the streets or are killed.
  • About 40% of dogs given to animal shelters are purebreds, but the shelters may not advertise this fact unless the person bringing in the dog has his or her papers.
  • Over 3,000 dogs are born every hour in the United States.
  • Every year, there are 10 times more dogs and cats born in the United States than there are homes for.
  • A single unspayed dog and her descendants can produce over 4,000 puppies over the course of seven generations.

How can I help?

The statistics are grim.  But there are ways you can help.  One of the biggest things you can do is to make sure you know what to expect when you bring a dog into your home.  If you want a small dog, don’t let anyone convince you that the runt of the Saint Bernard litter will remain small.  If you have neighbors who call the police whenever you turn on your stereo, you need to have a plan for how you will handle barking.  If your child is allergic to dogs, look for a breed that is hypoallergenic.  One of the biggest reasons why dogs are surrendered at shelters is that the dog simply didn’t meet the family’s expectations.  This is hardly the dog’s fault, but nevertheless it is the dog who suffers, often for the rest of a pitifully short life.

The next most important thing you can do to reduce shelter populations is to spay or neuter your dogs.  The only true solution to pet overpopulation is to prevent it from the start.  If you are not breeding or showing your dog, there is absolutely no reason to keep the dog intact.  Low-cost spay and neuter clinics are offered in nearly every jurisdiction in the country.  There is no value at all to the dog in waiting to spay or neuter.  Female dogs actually have an increased risk of cancer if they are permitted to have a litter, and male dogs may become less aggressive after neutering.

Make sure your dogs are tagged and / or microchipped.  Many lost dogs end up at shelters, and if they cannot be identified and returned to their families, they may be euthanized.  Alternatively, they may take up scarce space, meaning that another dog will be put down.  If you are traveling with your dog, make sure your dog’s tags include your cell number so you can be reached on the road.

Last, but certainly not least, adopt a shelter dog when you are looking for a new member for your family.  Shelter dogs come in every shape, size, and personality, so you will definitely find the one you want.  If you are willing to adopt an older dog, the need is especially great.

Choosing a Shelter Dog Part One:  Before You Go

shelter dog
Check out the shelter’s adoption policy and fees.

Before you make your visit to a shelter to choose a new family member, you should do some basic research to increase the odds of finding the perfect pet. is a great resource.  You can also use the website of your local shelter.

Look at several of the dogs listed as available, even if they are not dogs in which you are interested.  Do their descriptions indicate that anyone has actually evaluated the dog or do they all say the same thing?  Shelters and rescues that use foster homes rather than institutional cages can usually give you a better idea of what the dog is really like.  The description should be clear as to whether the dog is good with children, cats, and other dogs.  Any special needs should be fully described, as well as on-going medical care the dog may need.

Check the shelter’s return policy.  A reputable shelter will have a policy in place that allows you to return the dog if things don’t work out.  Most shelters will take a return, or in fact insist upon a return, at any time.  Large shelters with limited resources may set a time limit for returns.  In most cases, your adoption fee will not be refunded if you return the dog, although any deposit you have made for spaying and neutering should be refundable within a short time frame.

Narrow your list of shelter choices to those that look best based on the above criteria, then call each shelter on your list by considering the following:

What is the spay / neuter policy?  Many shelters have adopted a policy that no animals are available for adoption until after the animal has been spayed or neutered.  This is admirable because it helps with the overpopulation problem.  However, this may mean you cannot take your puppy home with you on your first visit, so distance to the shelter must be considered since you will be making two trips.  Also, a strict spay / neuter policy means that very young dogs are being put under general anesthesia, which is somewhat risky.  To avoid this risk, some shelters charge a deposit, and once the animal is spayed or neutered, the deposit is refunded.

Ask if the shelter does any temperament testing before placing dogs on the available list.  You will want some assurance that the dog is suitable for your family before you agree to take the dog home.

Check out the shelter’s adoption policy and fees.  Is there any kind of an application that would indicate the shelter is screening families to find those who are capable of taking good care of the dogs or will they release the dogs to anyone who shows up?  What do the fees include?  In many cases, the shelter will include the cost of microchipping and spaying or neutering the dog.  If your dog doesn’t need either of  these services, you may be able to negotiate a lower fee.  Other shelters may ask for whatever donation you are able to give to help defray their costs.

While you are on the phone, try to get some sense of how the staff feels about dogs.  Are they just identified by a cage number or does the person you talk to know the dog by name?  Are the dogs considered an inconvenience or are they treated as loving, lovable beings who have run up against some misfortune in their lives through no fault of their own?

Choosing a Shelter Dog Part Two:  At the Shelter

shelter dog
When you are choosing any dog, you should be most interested in how the dog fits with your family.

What should you look for in a shelter dog?  As when you are choosing any dog, you should be most interested in how the dog fits with your family’s lifestyle.  If you are outdoorsy, spending many weekends camping and hiking, you will want a sturdy dog, probably with short fur that will be less likely to pick up burrs.  If you live in an especially warm climate, you will want a dog with a lighter coat, rather than something like a Siberian Husky or a Bernese Mountain Dog.

Try to go in with an open mind.  You may have your heart set on a certain breed, but you may end up going home with a dog of another breed or even a mutt that ends up being a better match for your family.

Ask the shelter to bring the dog to a larger room so you can see how the dog reacts to you when he or she is away from the other dogs and outside of a cage.  Ideally, the dog will interact with you and your family willingly.  If the dog has his or her tail between the legs, head down, or hackles up, it is likely the dog has had unfortunate experiences with people in the past.  You should only take a dog like that if you have had experience in rehabilitating abused dogs.

Try to interest the dog in playing with you by throwing a ball or offering a tug toy.  Again, the dog should willingly want to play, but should not be overly possessive of the toy.  You should be able to take the toy away from the dog without causing a major upset.

Put a treat and a toy down near the dog and see which one generates the most interest.  This will help you to determine the dog’s primary drive, which can help you decide how to train the dog or if the dog will be good at certain sports.  For example, in dock diving, the dog must be willing to chase a toy into the pool.  If the dog’s primary drive is food, it may be harder to train the dog to go after a toy.

If possible, take the dog for a short walk to see how the dog reacts to distractions.  Ideally, the dog will remain focused on you even while other dogs are nearby or when cars go past.  A dog who can maintain his or her concentration will be much easier to train.

Through a fence, introduce the dog to your children.  Have your child put his or her hand flat against the chain links and see how the dog reacts.  Under no circumstances should your child put fingers into the pen.  Once the dog has met the child, have the child run or make loud noises and see what the dog does.  If the sudden movement or sounds are upsetting to the dog, this is not the dog you will want in your home.

Learn more about choosing the right dog for your family and bringing a new dog into your home in our doggies den.

Search you local shelters and rescues for dogs available for adoption here.

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