6 Tips for Picking the Perfect Shelter Dog

Keep these guidelines in mind when choosing a dog for adoption -- your future self will thank you.


I recently wrote about shelter dogs who act differently after they’re adopted. Such surprises are a possibility when adopting a dog from a shelter, but don’t let that deter you!

I asked shelter behavior specialist Katenna Jones to help me with some tips to allow people to better assess dogs in a shelter. Katenna knows her stuf: She’s the director of educational programs for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and she wrote the book Fetching the Perfect Dog Trainer: Getting the Best for You and Your Dog. She also provides behavioral advice to several Rhode Island shelters and rescues.

1. Take notes before you go

Talk to all your household members to clarify what you want in a dog. “Identify your dealbreakers before you even begin to look,” Jones advises. “Write them down, and take the list to the shelter. Often, we become overwhelmed with seeing dogs in cages, or are distracted by looks.” Examples of dealbreakers might include heavy shedding and drool, high or low energy, or lack of house training. Writing these things down will help you to keep your focus and self discipline.

2. Consider a trial run

Some animal shelters offer “foster-to-adopt” programs, in which you essentially give the dog a trial run in your own home before committing to adoption, in order to decide if the dog will be a good fit. Ask whether your local shelters offer this.

3. Don’t window-shop alone

If you are a novice in the dog world, try to bring someone more experienced with you to the shelter. Even if you are a skilled assessor, it can still be helpful to have another’s observations. Jones agrees: “Always bring an objective, dog-savvy friend.”

4. Ask lots of questions

Observe the dogs and take notes on their behavior. Talk with the shelter staff about their daily interactions with the dogs and what their impressions are. “Talk to volunteers and staff who care for, feed, and walk the dogs,” Jones adds, pointing out that the staff in charge of adoptions aren’t necessarily the ones who see the animals.

If a dog was surrendered, the previous owner may have been asked to fill out forms with background information. You’ll want to find out whether the dog has ever bitten anyone, is house trained, and is good with kids. Be prepared to take this information with a grain of salt. For example, if the dog was turned in for not getting along with other dogs, that may mean the dog you are looking at didn’t like other dogs — or the other dogs didn’t like him!

5. Consider a dog being fostered in a home

Some rescue organizations, rather than having a shelter or kennel facility, maintain dogs in foster homes while they are awaiting adoption. These rescues may be breed-specific or all-breed (like my group, Southpaws Express). One of the benefits of this is that it allows the potential adopter to see how a dog behaves in a home setting, as well as in other pet-typical situations like walking on-leash and visiting dog-friendly stores.

As we’ve seen, dogs can behave differently in a shelter than they do in a home, and a foster home can be very similar to an adoptive home. It is more of a mirror into everyday life with a dog.

Also, it allows you to get exactly what you want. For example, you might want a snuggly dog, one who is good with kids, or one who is good with cats. In the last case, you could look for a dog that has been specifically fostered alongside cats.

6. Give your new dog a grace period

When you bring your new dog home (congratulations!), remember to be patient. The dog does not yet know you, your home, your other pets, your neighborhood, or your routine. Dogs are adaptable and will try hard, but give them a grace period. It’s typical, for example, for a solidly housetrained dog to have accidents in a new home. He just needs a little refresher course.

“The first 72 hours or so is adjustment,” Jones says, cautioning new adopters not to judge the dog or even consider returning him during this phase (unless you see aggression). “In the first two weeks or so, you will start to see who your dog is going to be — I call this the ‘unpacking their bags’ phase. In the first three months or so your dog will go through changes, and you’ll learn a great deal about the dog.”

You might find your dog behaves well at first, then begins to push boundaries or act out as he gains more confidence. Or a dog who is fearful and withdrawn, like the Dachshund Piper I wrote about recently, yet settles into the household flow after a week or two.

“Adopting a dog is a big deal and should never be taken lightly,” Jones says. “Some dogs are ‘insert dog here’ kinds, and they just adapt and do perfectly. Some take a lot of work. Some just aren’t the right match. But like with any relationship, they take time, adaptation, patience, and communication.”

Do you have any tips for adopting a dog from a shelter or foster home? Let us know in the comments!

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