Shelter Dog Adoption Tips for Success

Dog looking through cage door
Adopting a dog from a shelter can be an amazingly reqarding experience.

Are you intimidated by the prospect of "rescuing" a dog from a shelter? One reason that you may be wary of adopting a dog from a shelter is not knowing how to choose. Dog personalities are partially breed-specific, and seem to come in many more flavors than other pets. So many mixed breed dogs in shelters may lead you to believe that a rescue dog's temperament is a total gamble...

Will your new dog be badly behaved, even dangerous? Will you end up with a pet who has expensive, hidden health problems? The reality is that shelters will usually accommodate all of your concerns. Adopting a dog from a shelter can be a rewarding process, if you're prepared to do a reasonable amount of research.

Don't Be Spooked By The Sniffles

Shelter pets are often exposed to infections, whether in their life prior to the shelter, or through close proximity to one another in the facility. Measures are usually taken to limit new infections within the facilities, but it is not always possible to prevent infection altogether.

See Shelter Dogs Nearest to you in our Free ADOPTsearch feature...

Many of these illnesses are not sufficient cause to reconsider adoption, however. Shelter employees are obligated to inform you if a shelter pet is carrying an illness which cannot be successfully dealt with prior to adoption, which could require expensive vet bills down the road, or which could infect you or your other pets.

However, to those unfamiliar with the spectrum of diseases common among shelter dogs, any appearance of runny noses, sneezing or weepy eyes could trigger an instinctive fear of germs and disease. Don't be scared off by sneezes; look into it! If, for whatever reason, you don't trust your local shelter to give you a comprehensive picture of potential health risks, you can find an extensive list of common diseases carried by shelter dogs on sites like and You can print one out, and bring it along for reference.

No Eye? No Problem!

Day care staff with dogs
Don't automatically rule out a dog with a disability.

Don't automatically rule out a dog based on disabilities, but don't overestimate your ability to meet a disabled dog's needs. Look into the particular condition, whether it be blindness, deafness, or a missing body part, and find out whether it comes with a financial burden or need for specialized care that you cannot provide.

Deafness, a limp or a missing eye could be relatively low maintenance, or they could come with expensive underlying health problems. Be able to evaluate which special needs you can handle, and which would be better left to more experienced caretakers of disabled dogs.

Fur Grows

Although they are usually bathed and treated for fleas upon admittance, it's not uncommon for a shelter pet to be matted or ungroomed, particularly if they come into the shelter as a stray, or from a neglectful home. Consequently, long-haired rescues can suffer from an image problem, looking worse for wear than their short-coated counterparts.

Don't be put off by tangled locks; the dog can be fully or partially shaved as needed, and the fur allowed to grow anew. In fact, a shelter may closely trim a long-haired dog to remove any mats; this can have the effect of altering his appearance and making the potential fur length of his breed, or mix of breeds, unrecognizable to the layman.

Longer haired dog with paw on cage
Don't be put off by looks- many dogs look worse for wear in a shelter.

If you're interested in adopting a "fluffy" dog with a certain coat style, you should know that many coat styles are created during grooming. For example, if you're looking for a terrier with hair styled in a "puppy cut," don't be put off if you find a stray whom the shelter has shaved for hygiene purposes. Conversely, if you're looking for a dog with short hair that doesn't require much grooming, be familiar enough with long haired breeds to know when you're looking at a shaved one, lest you be later caught off guard by encroaching fluff.

Know Your Breeds

While it's true that many shelter dogs are mutts, it's not true that you'll be flying blind. Most dogs will retain an appearance that is easily identified as one or more breeds, and usually will retain some of the behavioral characteristics of that breed. See our complete breed guide resource here. For this reason, you need to have a clear picture of the kind of dog you want, not only visually, but in terms of temperament.

To save time, start by looking at a general list of adoptable shelter dogs in your area, like our Petfinder adoption search tool right here on Available breeds and mixes can vary by geographical area; take note of which are the most prevalent in your area, and take the time to read about each breed. You can also do targeted searches of less common breeds in which you're interested, but being willing to consider commonly available breeds will increase your chances of finding a rescue dog who is right for you.

Note that some breeds who look very much alike can have very different temperaments. For example, a Havanese is similar in appearance to several terrier breeds, but tends to be less aggressive and more of a lapdog. Be aware of how a mix might alter a breed's projected characteristics. Knowing a dog's breed profile is not the only variable in determining his personality, but it's a good place to start. As with your health research, don't hesitate to bring along a printout for reference.

Beware of Puppies

It's true that raising a puppy is a different experience than adopting a dog who is a year old or more. However, different doesn't necessarily mean better. While most of the time, puppies are going to be more popular with potential adopters, in some ways they are the riskiest choice. One thing to remember about puppies in a shelter is that you don't know what you're signing up for. You don't know if they were rescued from a puppy mill who bred serious health problems or temperament flaws into the puppies, and you don't know whether a stray puppy's immune system has been compromised due to lack of care. If you do rescue a puppy, you must be prepared for the unknown.

Adult Beagle
Many adult dogs are trained, calm, sometimes left because their care giver passed away.

Give Adults a Chance

It's not true that adult shelter dogs are always badly behaved. Much of a dog's temperament is hereditary, and even in cases of previous abuse or neglect, a dog does not always develop dangerous or disruptive behavior. Don't take on more than you can handle, but be aware that a dog's history does not always determine its temperament. Many adult rescues are sweet-tempered and manageable. Some even come from prior homes in which they were adequately trained, and may already respond well to basic commands.

Keep in mind that with an adult dog, you get a much more complete picture of what you're getting into. You can see his fully-formed features, you can get a sense of his behavior patterns, and you can see if his health is stable or if he has chronic health problems. Additionally, you will have a much wider selection of dogs if you choose to adopt an adult, even if you limit your search to dogs under three years old.

Browse Beforehand

You can view updated photos and descriptions of most shelter dogs in north america right here on! Most pets will be designated a case number even if they don't already have names, and you can easily jot down the identifying details of any dogs you would like to meet. Some shelters even provide an overview of the dog's personality to aid in your search. You may need to visit more than one shelter in order to find the right dog for you, and knowing which dogs you're going to see will save you time.

It's no secret that taking on a new pet is a big responsibility, no matter where you get them. While shelter pets can carry a more affordable price tag, and can even be well-behaved, the need for patience and responsibility is no less paramount. Lack of preparedness, financial or otherwise, is one of the most common reasons that well-meaning adopters later choose to surrender their pet to a shelter, but this doesn't have to happen to you. Being well-informed, and choosing your new pet carefully, will ensure that you don't bite off more than you can chew.

See Shelter Dogs Nearest You Now!

Click on our Free Adopt tool!

For more information on adopting Shelter Dogs see our article Adopting a Shelter Dog.

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