7 Tips for Finding Your Shelter Dog

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PetMD Editorial
Published: September 24, 2018

Image via Art_rich/Shutterstock.com

By Maura McAndrew

The ASPCA has deemed October National Adopt a Shelter Dog month, and there’s no better time to bring home a new pet. When you adopt a dog from a shelter, you are giving a home to one of the 3.3 million dogs that are taken into US shelters each year.

“With a shelter dog, you're not just adopting a new companion; you're helping to get dogs off the street and into a loving home,” explains Jackie Maffucci, PhD, certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Positive Dog Solutions in Washington, DC. “You're saving a life and giving that dog a second chance.”

But adopting a shelter dog is not something to do on a whim. With so many shelters out there full of pups who need love, it can be difficult to choose the pet that’s right for your lifestyle and family.

It’s best to be prepared and know in advance what you want. Three experts offer advice on how to walk out of your local animal shelter with your fur-ever best friend.

Assess Your Options

Depending on where you live, you may have a lot of choices when it comes to animal shelters, so the first step is to decide where you want to search. Maffucci notes that some shelters are open admission, meaning they don’t turn away animals based on health, age or behavior, while others do sometimes refuse animals who are aggressive or have health issues. In both cases, these shelters may do behavior assessments to help provide more information. 

Rescue organizations, which often run foster programs, are also an option. “With animals that have been in foster care, you have the advantage of getting more information about how the dog does in a home environment,” she says.

No matter what kind of shelter you visit, Maffucci recommends doing a little research online beforehand to see what types of pups are up for adoption.

Come Prepared

Once you’ve chosen a shelter to visit, find out what you will need for the adoption process. After all, if you find that perfect pup, you’re going to want to bring him or her home as soon as possible.

Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Michelson Found Animals Adopt & Shop in southern California, recommends calling ahead of time to make sure you have the required documents.

“Come prepared with paperwork,” she advises. “For example, if you are renting your home or apartment, [some] shelters will require a lease agreement to ensure that pets are permitted at the property.” In addition, make sure you’re aware of any adoption fees so that you can cover the cost.

Set Parameters—and Stick to Them

“Often dog owners fall into the trap of bringing home the first dog they ‘fall in love with’ based on physical appearance,” notes Maffucci. Instead, she suggests compiling a list with three categories: what you absolutely want in a dog, what you absolutely do not want in a dog, and what you'd like to have in a dog, if possible.

Gilbreath agrees that too much emphasis on appearance can be a mistake. “It’s common to walk into a shelter with a predetermined idea of the type of animal you wish to adopt based on color or breed, but it’s important to keep an open mind,” she says. “What’s going to matter most at the end of the day is whether the dog is a good fit for you and your lifestyle.”

Knowing your level of commitment—in lifestyle, time and cost—is key, says Debbie Chissell, manager of the spcaLA South Bay Pet Adoption Center in Los Angeles, California.

“Going into a shelter unprepared is like going into a candy store just to look—you can’t!” she says. She suggests taking a hard look at your time commitments, your living situation, whether you lead an active or sedentary lifestyle, and whether your income can cover the expenses of a dog, which will vary based on breed and age.

Consider how a dog might interact with your children or other pets and whether you’re open to a dog with special health or behavioral needs.

Chissell and Maffucci advise including each member of the household in the adoption process (this means no surprise puppies under the Christmas tree). Discuss everyone’s roles in the new pet’s care, and decide together what you can handle.

“You want to make sure the dog is the correct fit for everyone,” Chissell says. “This also strengthens the bond and sets the path for a good and permanent future together.”

Observe Behaviors in Light of the Shelter Environment

So you’ve made your list and you know what you want—but how can you tell which dog in the shelter fits the bill? “At the shelter, it's hard to know for sure what behaviors are a product of the environment and what are truly representative of the dog,” says Maffucci.

She suggests asking staff about any behaviors that concern you to see if they have any insight, as it’s likely they have spent enough time with the dog to get a sense of his or her personality.

“As much as we try to enrich the lives of shelter animals, even the most outstanding shelter can still be a stressful environment for any dog,” explains Chissell. “This can sometimes alter his or her behavior in order to cope.

Some dogs may become excitable, while others may become shy and inhibited. While no observed behavior should ever be disregarded, it can often be a temporary byproduct of the environment and can change once in a permanent home.”

Bearing this in mind, observe a dog’s body language in the shelter and how the dog interacts with people and situations. Chissell’s advice is to look at whether the dog appears nervous or confident in large groups, has a tendency to shy away from young children or loud noises, has a willingness to approach strangers, and the amount of barking and energy level.

These subtle behaviors can give you clues as to how the dog will mesh with your lifestyle. “For example, if a dog is timid and does not approach the kennel to meet you, they may be best suited for a quieter environment with someone who has the patience and time to build up trust,” Chissell explains.

On the other hand, “A dog who happily approaches the kennel with moderate excitement, makes good eye contact and is willing to be petted might make a good choice for a family with small children.”

Follow the Dog’s Cues in the Meet-and-Greet

While you observe shelter dogs’ behaviors, it’s also crucial to keep your own behavior in check. “One-on-one time is important for getting to know the dog, but it's also important to recognize that the dog you're meeting with doesn't know you!” explains Maffucci. She recommends letting the dog initiate the interaction, rather than reaching out right away to pet him or her.

Dog toys and treats (as long as they’re okayed by shelter staff) provide a nice way to begin engaging, she says, but watch the dog’s reactions and take it slow. “If the dog's body is loose and inviting interaction, go for it. But if the dog is shying away, crouching or otherwise avoiding interaction, he or she might be shy or overwhelmed, so give space, time and try engaging with treats,” says Maffucci.

Finally, while all family members should have a chance to meet potential pets, Maffucci warns that groups of people in small spaces can be overwhelming for shelter dogs. “You might divide the group up so the dog isn't meeting you all at once,” she says.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

While taking time to interact with shelter dogs is key, you can also find out a lot by talking to shelter staff and foster parents about a dog’s history and personality. Gilbreath recommends inquiring about a dog’s medical history or known health conditions, how he or she gets along with other pets and children, and anything that is known about where he or she came from.

Shelter staff are the people who have engaged with the dog the most, Maffucci explains, and will likely know a bit about how the dog behaves in different situations. “Weekends tend to be busy at the shelter, so be patient,” she says. “The staff and volunteers will be available to help you, but it might take some time.”

Any information the staff has about a dog’s history can be extremely helpful, Gilbreath notes, but try not to get discouraged if there is little information available. “Don’t rule out a pet just because their background is unknown—they could still be a great match for you,” she says.

Consider Volunteering or Fostering

Not ready to adopt a shelter dog? Shelters are always looking for volunteers to either work on site or foster rescue dogs. “If you are not sure if you are ready to adopt, or unsure which type of dog you are looking for, we recommend fostering first with the adoption center, shelter or local rescue group,” Gilbreath says.

This allows you to determine both what type of rescue dog might fit into your lifestyle and home, and if you’re ready to take on the responsibility of a pet. “It also helps the animal, makes space for a new animal at the rescue or shelter, and increases their chance for adoption,” Gilbreath adds. “And if you fall in love with your foster, you can adopt—it's a win-win!”