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The Complete Guide for Dog Adopters

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Adopting a dog from a rescue center or shelter is a beautiful thing to do.

More than 3 million dogs enter 3.500 shelters each and every year for reasons ranging from divorce to unexpected costs of actually owning a dog.

That amounts to 6 dogs that are given up or taken away every minute.

Kudos to you if you are ready to make such a big commitment and provide a dog in need with a happier life.

A lot will be changing in his and your own daily schedule but the relationship with a rescue dog is so incredibly rewarding and filled with love and gratitude.

Now that you have decided that now is the right time for you to adopt a dog, what should be the next steps?

Your potential shelter or rescue center will probably (and should) ask a lot of questions but you should also be evaluating for yourself if you are truly ready to rescue a dog and if the organization is trustworthy.

What are the questions to ask when adopting a rescue dog? Are there tips for first-time dog adopters or any red flags when adopting a dog?

There are lots of questions you can ask to make sure you’re dealing with a trustworthy and reputable shelter.

Shelters that won’t let you see the dog before committing in order to test the chemistry should signal a red flag.

But there’s much more to the dog adoption screening process.

What Shelters Look For In Dog Adopters

Before making a lifetime commitment, really ask yourself if a dog is the right pet for you.

Below I have collected a variety of possible questions that you might be asked in your screening as a potential dog adopter so be prepared to answer any of those.

But these questions won’t only be beneficial to the shelter, they will also help you to make a final decision.

Nearly 20% of adopted dogs are being returned within the first few weeks and I don’t want that to happen to you.

Dog Adoption Reference Questions

  • Do you own a home or rent a place? If you rent an apartment or house who is your landlord? Are pets allowed? Are there any size or breed restrictions? Which floor do you live on?
  • Does your home have a yard or other adequate exercise possibilities for a high-energy dog? Is it properly fenced?
  • Do you have children? How many? How old are they? Who else lives in the house?
  • Do you own a second dog or other pets? How many? How old? Are they fixed? How would they react to a new dog?
  • Do you live in a city or urban area? Are there sufficient walking and exercise opportunities?
  • Do you have previous dog or breedspecific experience?
  • Where will your dog spend most of his time? (yard, house, kennel)
  • Does your city or state have any canine-related regulations or laws?

Are You Ready to Care for a Dog?

  • Does everyone in the household agree to adopt a dog?
  • Who would be the primary guardian and caregiver? Would the whole family be involved?
  • Can someone care for your dog when you are ill or on vacation? Would he need to move places for that?
  • How long will he need to be alone during the day?
  • Does a dog fit into your social life and work responsibilities?
  • Does anyone in the home suffer from a pet allergy or any other issues that might be triggered by a dog?
  • Is your home a stressful environment for a pet with many parties or a lot of children? Are you constantly fighting with your partner?
  • Can you provide the dog with sufficient canine social interaction at least once a week?

How to Choose the Right Shelter Dog

After you have answered all those questions for the staff and for yourself and you would be given permission to adopt a dog, now the big decision of choosing the right dog comes into play.

There are so many factors that you will need to take into consideration before choosing your perfect dog.

Don’t just take the first one you like and really evaluate who would be the right fit for you and your family.

It often helps to leave the kids at home for the first visit because the “love at first sight” symptom is extremely common for children.

Remember that a dog is a lifetime commitment and not only for a few months.

Research as much as possible about certain breeds, dog training, and dog behavior before you make your final decision.

  • Would you like to own a puppy, adult, or senior dog? Can you provide for each of their needs? What would be the best fit for your current lifestyle?
  • If you are choosing a puppy, do you have the time and patience to work through all the issues like chewing or potty training?
  • If you are choosing a senior, do you have the time and financial capability to care for their special needs?
  • How much daily exercise can you provide your dog with? If you are very active, a high-energy breed might be better for you.
  • What size of dog are you imagining? A toy, small, medium, large or giant breed? Do you have enough space for a large dog?
  • What kind of behavior do you expect from the dog? Should he be easy to train, wants to be petted or could you take the time and build up confidence in a timid dog?
  • What problems could you train and work with? Separation anxiety, housebreaking, prey drive, and so on?
  • What behavior traits are the most important to you? What about temperament – Do you want him to be cuddly and clingy or more independent?
  • What problems do your other pets have, if any?
  • Do you have young children or pets that are not compatible with a difficult dog?
  • Do you travel frequently?
  • Are you and your family ready to make a full-time commitment for the next 10-15 years?

Avoid impulsive decisions as much as possible and really take your time to monitor your potential dog as well as the facility itself.

Finding the right dog might sound difficult but shelters can turn out to be a big disappointment too.

Questions to Ask When Adopting a Rescue Dog

Similar to the questions you should ask your breeder when picking out a puppy, you should thoroughly screen the organization you’re planning to get a rescue dog from.

There are essentially two main types of animal shelters.

Open-intake shelters usually have a large number of pets and cannot spend as much time with an individual.

So they might not be able to give you a lot of information about your potential rescue dog.

Limited-intake shelters have a smaller amount of pets as they do not accept pets from the public.

They have higher adoption fees but they can get to know each dog a lot better. When visiting a shelter for the first time, take the following notes:

  • Do the kennels and the area look clean or rather messy?
  • Do the dogs have nameplates or just numbers on a sign?
  • How well is the staff educated and how willing are they to answer any questions?
  • How often can the dogs interact with people one-on-one?
  • Are the dogs being trained and exercised properly?
  • Do they look healthy or rather thin and lethargic?
  • How does the staff handle the dogs? With a rough hand or with compassion?
  • How much can they tell you about each individual dog?

When talking to the staff, don’t hold back any questions and really dig deep. Kennel card descriptions might give you a first impression but their words tend to be generic or too vague.

Tips For First-Time Dog Adopters

Now that you have evaluated that you are ready to adopt a dog and you have even decided on a shelter or rescue center, it is now time to meet your future companion.

You have probably preselected a few dogs during your first visit. Make sure to schedule a meeting or several sessions with each of these dogs to get to know them properly.

Follow the meet-and-greet protocol of your local dog shelter or the advice of a staff member on how you should approach the dog and which way to interact with him best.

Watch the body language and behavior closely when the dog is being brought to you on a leash.

BUT: Don’t pay too much attention if he is pulling out of excitement. This is definitely a very stressful and exciting situation for everyone. Evaluate if you could train leash-pulling though.

Pay attention to how he walks by the other dogs and people. Is he lunging, growling, or barking?

Then he might have a reactivity issue which you should address immediately.

How does the dog interact with you? Is he quickly running up and wagging the tail or does he seem to be more reserved?

None of these options is better than the other, it will just give you a first impression of how the dog reacts towards strangers.

Try to engage with him into any sort of play and see how much he desires to interact with you.

After a few sessions of tug of war or fetch, stop the game and ignore him for a while. You will want to see how easily he can settle down again after excitement.

This will give you a first idea of how the dog deals with frustration as well as impulse control and attachment.

It’s not bad if he wants to continue playing with you but he will also have to accept if you would prefer to do something else like sitting down calmly without him begging for more.

Observe his movements and determine his current stress level. Is he pacing around, yawning, restless, or panting?

These are signs of a very stressed dog so you will have to ask the staff if there is a specific reason why he is feeling so uncomfortable even after several minutes.

Try to offer him a treat and see if he is willing to take it. A very stressed out or anxious dog wouldn’t take the most delicious treat in the world.

You can also try and toss a few treats on the ground in front of you.

Food creates a positive association and releases endorphins which makes it the best tool for a first meeting.

You can also watch how he is reacting to loud noises or sudden movements. Does he seem very alert whenever someone is approaching? Is it completely impossible for him to settle?

These are all tiny clues that will form a big picture for your personal decision.

After you have met the dog alone, you can take your children with you and see how they get along.

You should stay away from a dog that is scared by them or tries to avoid them completely.

Educate your children about proper interaction with a canine. If they are cornering him or screaming – who wouldn’t get scared?

Ask the staff if it would be possible to interact with the dog in different areas including indoor rooms, a park, or a new place.

A dog can change his behavior completely in different environments. If they offer any pack walk opportunities or training classes, take them.

Always remember: Only adopt a dog if you’re ready to work on known issues and you’re ready – in case no improvement happens – to still keep the dog with the character he had when you adopted him.

Red Flags for Dog Adopters

Although rescues and animal shelters are all caring for pets in need, their practices are not always ethical and you should be looking out for the black sheep.

There are a few warning signs you should be aware of when choosing the right dog as well as the rescue center.

Their dog’s potential future and health should be the highest priority which should reflect in different assessments, screenings, vet care, and post-adoption support.

Warning Signs of a Bad Rescue

They do not have a proper application form. Prevalidation of a potential adopter should be the norm.

Every shelter and rescue should have its own rules and qualifications displayed in an application form. This will also give you a first idea if the shelter would be the right fit.

They do not have a screening program. You will be asking them a lot of questions and they should be as interested in getting to know you.

A screening form should be the least and many take different steps to assess your qualifications like visiting your home or checking on your current pets.

A shelter that is not interested in a pet’s future is a big no and should be avoided.

They are refusing visits. Above I have talked about several meetings that you should try with your potential rescue dog.

If a shelter refuses this kind of contact then don’t bother going further with them. It should be in their best interest that the dog and adopter fit together.

They are rushing things. The adoption process can take and should take several weeks. It is a huge decision you are making and they should provide sufficient support.

If they are trying to skip important steps then they are not trying to entrust you the dog but rather sell a simple good.

Their website displays no information. Looking around their website will reveal a lot of secrets. Do they have information on volunteering?

What is their mission statement? And most importantly are they posting any success stories with happy photos from past rescues?

They are holding back health care information. It is your right to ask about past veterinary examinations and your dog’s health.

If they refuse any information and papers, you are at risk of adopting a sick dog.

They are not allowing any third-party assessments. You are allowed to take a trainer or vet with you to determine any behavioral issues. He can also give you a few first tips and ideas for a training plan.

Red Flags of a Dog

“He is just tired.” A dog that seems to be a bit too calm and lethargic is always a big red flag.

He might be sick or have an underlying disease that is causing unresponsiveness. For this dog, you should be allowed to get a full veterinary checkup.

A lunging and snapping dog. This could be a sign of reactivity which is a result of poor socialization.

While this doesn’t have to be a problem, you will have to be aware of the load of training that is coming your way and possible aggression.

Barking and growling. Excessive vocalization can be a sign of stress and excitement. But there is a small chance that this behavior might not stop in your home without proper training.

The “over-friendly” pooch. I know that a dog so loving must be an angel. But don’t get fooled by the facade.

I have raised my dog to be over-friendly through a lot of socialization and it’s my fault that she needs so much work.

Just because your dog loves people and animals doesn’t mean that no training will be required.

For a whole 8 months, I had to consistently train my dog to be calm on walks and not pull to other people for a pet and I am still working on it every day.

Excessive lip-licking and panting. Those are very common signs of stress which should wear off after a few minutes of getting to know you.

The dog might not be feeling well or is overly stressed for another reason.

Staying in the darkest corner of the kennel. A dog that refuses to come up to you might be genuinely scared of people.

Fearful dogs require a lot of work and understanding and they are not the best fit for families with children.

Checklist for New Dog Adopters

Congratulations! You have come this far and were able to eliminate any red flags.

You have chosen a shelter plus your desired dog and gotcha day is coming soon. Being prepared is a must to ensure a solid foundation.

You don’t want to be caught off guard when the excited dog would like to drink a bit of water.

The cost of adopting and owning a dog should never be underestimated.

Besides vet bills, potential spaying or neutering, adoption fees, training classes, and identifications, you will also buy a whole lot of items that he will need from day one.

Shopping Checklist for Dog Adopters

I have compiled a complete checklist that you can download, print out, and take with you on the next shopping trip:

If you are more of an online shopper, here are a few of my personal recommendations for products that I actually own and use myself:

When you are buying your food and water bowl, I can highly recommend you going for the Pet Zone Adjustable Elevated Dog Bowls.

They will save your dog from so much potential back pain later on in life.

Especially large breeds have to always bow down quite low to reach the bowls on the ground so this would be the perfect solution for that.

The day before you pick up the dog, work on the house to make it puppy-proof.

Clean and pick up every object that could be accidentally swallowed by a dog. If you don’t want expensive items to get broken or chewed on, remove them.

Store all wires and cords, and lock away any chemical cleaners as well as medication. You don’t want your dog to be spending his first day in the emergency room.

Also, close any trash cans and cabinets with food in them and if possible, close the whole kitchen altogether.

What to Expect

When bringing home your adopted dog, he will be stressed as hell. Right in the car, he might bark, whine, vomit, or even urinate out of excitement depending on his temperament.

I bought the URPOWER 100% Waterproof Pet Car Seat Cover a long time ago and I don’t regret it at all.

I believe that this is a musthave item for every dog owner even if it’s just raining outside and you don’t want to have dirty paws all over the seats, not to mention the kilos of dog hair.

Be very calm and don’t overreact to car sickness or any other stress symptom. Approach your dog with understanding and consider the negative experiences he had in the past.

Close up all the rooms with doors or baby gates to not overwhelm your dog with the whole house.

Over the next couple of days you can show him around but limiting his explorations to only one room, in the beginning, will take away a lot of stress.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, ensure that your dog is getting enough physical exercise as well as mental stimulation while revealing to him more and more of his living environment.

Incorporate daily training sessions and work on preventing separation anxiety. Look in the dog training section of this blog and train the recall, release, and heel command.

Get to know your dog more and more and start researching dog behavior.

You might have to work on potty training even with adult dogs because many rescues haven’t been taught stuff like this.

Also, put focus on socialization especially if your dog hasn’t been socialized before.

Mistakes Dog Adopters Make

Like anyone, you will probably make a few mistakes with your new dog and that’s okay. But I can tell you a few very common mistakes so you won’t have to be guilty of them too.

Spoiling the dog – I know that he had a horrible past without anyone being there to offer him unconditional love.

But showering him with kisses and high-value treats will completely overwhelm him. Going from one day of isolation to another in a loving family is a hard switch.

He will quickly become very attached to you in an anxious way. Leaving you will make him feel stressed and uneasy.

Go slowly with it and take your time introducing different parts of his new life so he will be confident when being on his own.

Giving too much freedom too early – This is the reason why I have told you to limit his access to the new house in the beginning.

It’s not easy to digest a brand new environment, with new people and strange scents all at once. Every dog needs boundaries to feel comfortable.

Not sticking to the rules – Before you bring home any dog, you should have laid out a set of rules that everyone in the family has to agree upon and enforce.

If you don’t want your dog on the furniture then establish it from the very first second.

Dogs do not understand exceptions like children do. They are habitual creatures and jumping on furniture will become a habit very quickly.

If you don’t want your dog to get into the bathroom, then never leave the door open for him unsupervised.

Not providing your dog with the right type of activity – In the beginning, a lot of this exercise will consist of him exploring and sniffing his new environment on a long leash.

Get familiar with his exercise needs and preferences and don’t force him to do anything he doesn’t want.

You don’t need to be jogging if your dog would rather play fetch and he doesn’t have to go for a swim if he would rather search for dummies.

Overexercising is just as fatal as underexercising your dog so you will have to find the golden middle.

I wish you the best of luck with your newly adopted dog and let me know your experience with dog adoption in the comments down below!

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Disclaimer: This blog post does not substitute veterinary attention and does not intend to do so. I am not a veterinarian or pet nutritionist. If your dog shows any sign of illness, call your vet.

About Danielle

Equipped with 5+ years of expertise as a Rottweiler owner, I partner with licensed veterinarians and trainers to share research-backed and actionable advice for you and your furry friend.


Tuesday 12th of May 2020

Excellent article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..


Sunday 10th of May 2020

Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It is the little preparations which will determine your success as adoptee. Thanks for sharing!|


Sunday 10th of May 2020

This is the kind of info that should be shared with all people who want to potentially adopt a dog!