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6 Tips to Choosing a Rescue Dog at the Shelter

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Bringing home a new dog is an incredibly exciting time. But how do you choose a rescue dog? Depending on where you live, you might not have a ton of options when you walk into the local shelter – or you might be inundated with wagging tails and begging eyes. So how do you decide?

I used to work at an animal shelter as a behavior consultant. My favorite part of the job was working with adopters to decide on a new pet that would fit well into their homes and lives. I also enjoyed helping people understand which aspects of a given pet might be challenging for their lifestyles and goals.

Let’s walk through how to choose a shelter dog or puppy, from the moment the idea crosses your mind to the moment you unclip your new dog’s leash inside your home.

How to Choose a Rescue Dog at the Shelter?

1. Decide What You’re Looking For

Decide What You’re Looking For

Before you even type a search query into Google (let alone step into a shelter), it’s important to know what you’re looking for. Having a clear idea of what you want (and what you need) in a dog will help you make a smart decision at the rescue.

For example, when I was looking for “My Dog,” I owned a parrot. It was a non-negotiable point that my new dog could not eat my parrot. That meant any dogs with really high prey drive were out!

I also wanted a dog who could keep up with me on long runs and hikes. This was really important to me, so when I fell in love with a 3-legged deaf dog, I knew I had to say “Not you, you’ll find another good home!”

Don’t worry, Ringo found a great home with someone else! On the other end of the spectrum, I also knew that I liked the look of dogs with long hair and pointy ears. I didn’t get the pointy ears, but that’s ok.

Make sure that you’re not just thinking about looks when you’re considering what you want in your dog. Think about the sort of life you want to share with your dog, and what that means for your dog.

Decide what you’re looking for (and how important it is to you) in regards to your dog’s:

  • Relationship to other dogs.
  • Relationship to kids.
  • Friendliness to other people.
  • Energy level.
  • Shedding and grooming.
  • Trainability and smarts.
  • “Off switch” behaviors.
  • Working instincts (herding, prey drive, pulling, etc).
  • Physical looks.
  • Size.
  • Longevity based on breed and other factors.
  • Existing health concerns – these can be a huge financial strain and may limit your time with your dog.
  • Existing behavioral concerns. Be sure to distinguish between manners (potty training, jumping, pulling on leash) versus more serious behavior concerns (fear of new people, aggression towards other dogs, separation anxiety).
  • Excitability – a dog might be friendly, but overly exuberant. Depending on your lifestyle, this over-the-top friendliness can be quite a bother.
  • Other add-ons as needed. For example, I knew I needed a dog who was OK in the car and around other dogs for training. I also wanted a dog who liked water and fetch. Those factors might not matter to you, but something else I haven’t mentioned might mean a lot!

While training certainly can and will play a large role in your relationship with your dog, I find it helpful to pretend that the dog you see is the dog you’ll get. Decide what you can live with, and what you can’t.

Make sure you’re taking into account the life you actually have, not the life you wish you had. What I mean is that you need to be honest with yourself about your free time, financial leeway, and social life.

For example, in Colorado, we’d often get adopters who wanted a “hiking buddy.” But if we asked them how often they’d hiked in the last month, they’d admit that they had only gotten out on the trails once. They liked the idea of having an outdoorsy adventure dog, but they didn’t actually lead a life that was conducive to that!

Similarly, I had to decide not to adopt a dog that I loved because the dog had separation anxiety, and I simply couldn’t afford the care she’d need while I was at work every day.

Your life will change when you get a dog. Make sure that the dog you adopt fits into a life that you want and a life you’re going to easily attain!

2. Find a Shelter or Rescue to Work With

Find a Shelter or Rescue to Work With

Once you know what you’re looking for in your next dog, you can start looking for a rescue or shelter to work with. In some urban parts of the country, you might have seemingly endless options for rescues and shelters to work with. That’s why picking just one or two can help!

For example, I kept an eye out for a border collie from Herd of Wyoming, a collie-specific rescue. I also worked at a shelter, so I looked there.

Knowing what I wanted allowed me to look only at the shelters that were most likely to have what I was looking for. I didn’t need to spend my time perusing the sites of a shepherd-specific rescue!

If you’re in an area with fewer rescue resources, you might just have to make do with the local shelter. That’s fine! I find that the problem in many parts of the country is too many options, not too few.

Petfinder and other online resources can be really useful, but they also introduce you to far more dogs than you possibly could actually meet. The profiles on the site are often incomplete, and sometimes the dogs are actually housed at a rescue out-of-state.

When I reached out to a rescue about a fluffy collie mix puppy, I was told I could pay a fee and the puppy would be delivered! No, thank you! I want to meet my rescue dog before I bring him home, thank you very much.

Be sure to talk to others about which rescues and shelters are well-regarded and ethical in your community. Facebook groups can be incredibly useful for this research.

If a certain facility is known for adopting out unvaccinated, sickly, or shy animals (especially if they’re lying about it), steer clear! Some “retail rescues” also are in the business of purchasing puppies from puppy mills or backyard breeders and pawning them off as “rescues” – you definitely don’t want to support that harmful business model!

3. Foster if you Can

Foster if you Can

Hands-down the best way to decide if a dog is right for you is to foster that dog. Before my partner and I adopted Barley, we fostered nearly a dozen dogs. This allowed us to really figure out what we liked and didn’t like. We almost kept several of the dogs, but each time, they just didn’t “click” quite right.

As soon as I took Barley home, I could tell he was different. It wasn’t just that there was nothing “wrong” with him (many of the dogs we’d fostered had nothing “wrong” with them), but he also was everything I wanted!

Fostering also allows you to “practice” owning a dog. If it turns out that the time commitment or financial burden is too much, the dog isn’t a permanent fixture! I really found it helpful to ease into dog ownership by fostering intermittently before bringing home a permanent member to my family.

4. Meet Lots of Dogs

If you can’t foster (and even if you can) it’s important to just meet a lot of dogs. My partner loves the look of Akitas. He thinks they’re the world’s coolest-looking dogs. But after we met a few, we decided that their personalities weren’t quite right for us.

You might love the cute faces of pugs, but find their breathing is annoying. You might love greyhounds but not like how aloof they can be. Meeting dogs, especially if you’re able to dog-sit, dog-walk, or foster, will help you narrow down exactly what you’re looking for in a rescue dog.

I also recommend meeting lots of adoptable dogs. Practice saying no to dogs. While you might get lucky with adopting the first dog you see, you might not.

Practice “window-shopping” a bit with dogs so that you’re skilled at assessing potential rescue dogs and turning them down. It’s easy to fall in love, especially if the dog has a heartwrenching story.

But adopting a dog that’s the wrong fit for you isn’t best for you or the dog. It’s better to be a bit picky.

5. Ask Lots of Questions

You spot the dog. He’s the right size, he’s got the right coat type. That glimmer in his eye is just what you were looking for.

Whether you’re online or at the shelter, your first job is to start asking questions. Read the kennel card first if you can, then start asking the adoption counselor or foster parent.

Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily a red flag if the volunteer or staff member can’t answer your question. It’s quite common for the dogs to have unknown histories.

Be sure to ask:

  • How did this dog end up at the shelter?
  • What do you know about this dog’s history?
  • How long has this dog been here?
  • How has he done in the kennel environment?
  • How does he do on walks?
  • How does he do with strangers?
  • Does he have any history with kids, dogs, or cats?
  • Has he seen a vet here? What veterinary records do we have on-hand for him?
  • Will he need regular grooming? If so, how does he do at the groomer?
  • How does he do being handled?
  • What vaccines is he current on?
  • Is he neutered or spayed? Why or why not?
  • Does he have a microchip?
  • Are there any known allergies?
  • Is he potty trained, or was he in the last home?
  • Is he crate trained?
  • How much exercise does he need?
  • What’s his favorite activity?
  • Does he relax when you’re ready to be done playing, or does he get pushy?
  • Does he like toys?
  • How food motivated is he?
  • Has any resource guarding been noted?
  • Would he enjoy an active home, or is he more of a homebody?
  • How does he do with strange people on walks? What about strangers entering the home?
  • Does he like cuddling?
  • Does he show any signs of separation anxiety, noise phobias, fear of new things, fear of strangers, fear of other dogs, or aggression in any form?
  • Does he get barky?
  • How does he do with other dogs, both on and off leash?
  • If other dogs don’t want to play with him, what does he do?
  • If other dogs want to play and he doesn’t, what does he do?
  • Has he ever bitten, that you know of? What were the circumstances? How bad was the bite?
  • Does he have any training?
  • Can I take him for a short walk or take him to a play yard?
  • What happens if I cannot keep this dog later in life?
  • What resources do you have if this dog comes down with a shelter-related illness this week, such as kennel cough or ringworm?

Again, it’s likely that the adoption counselor will not know the answers to many of these questions. A stray dog or dog left in an overnight kennel might not have any known history at all!

It’s also important to consider the context of answers. For example, I once evaluated a shelter dog who was very barky and hyperactive. But later, it turns out that the dog was kept in a kennel 23 hours per day. No wonder he seemed crazy! With a good home and plenty of exercise, he became a very pleasant dog.

Another dog bit his owner – when the owner was trying to drag him out from under the bed to punish the dog. The dog didn’t break the skin (despite being a Great Dane, which shows great restraint) and was honestly trying to defend itself. That’s very different from a dog who viciously attacks strangers!

6. Head Home

Head Home

Once your questions have been answered to a satisfactory degree, it’s time to head home – with or without the dog. There’s no shame in deciding that you and a dog aren’t a perfect match. If the adoption counselors pressure you or try to shame you, find a different rescue to work with! This should not feel like buying a used car from a pushy salesman.

If possible, ask if the shelter has a foster-to-adopt program. They might not – that’s ok. If they do, you might want to consider fostering the dog before deciding.

Either way, if you adopt the dog, try to make your first few days together relatively relaxing. Don’t take your new dog everywhere with you (no, don’t go to the pet store right away). That’s just too much!

Instead, focus on building up your routine together. Go for relaxing walks, reward your dog for paying attention to you, and slowly introduce your dog to your life. Don’t have a new-dog-adoption party and overwhelm your pup. They’ve already had a lot going on lately – they’ll appreciate a low-key welcome.

Now that your dog is in your home, try to assume that everything you see is trainable. Don’t blame poor behavior on genetics or “being a rescue.” Instead, focus on what you want your dog to do and reward good behavior.

Avoid punishment – your dog doesn’t know better, and punishment can harm your growing relationship. Use your dog’s meals as training opportunities and constantly teach your dog how to be a great best friend!

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