In Choosing a Shelter Puppy, Don’t Rely on Looks Alone

Puppies up for adoption are often little furry mysteries with regard to breed and their adult size.


Not much in the world is as heart-tugging as puppies in a shelter. When your mission is puppy adoption, there they are, so innocent and trusting, not knowing what their fates may be. These puppies are just babies born into a cruel world that has already cast them into this sad and vulnerable position.

They need saving. They need a loving home in which to grow up and thrive. But before you go to the shelter, where your emotions may overtake you, it’s best to make thoughtful, realistic considerations and ensure you are prepared for the commitment that a puppy represents.

My rescue, Southpaws Express, has pulled many puppies whose lives were on the line at high-volume shelters. We place them into foster care and ultimately into adoptive homes. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot, so here I share some of my insights.

We often host adoption events at our partner Petco store. Usually, young puppies attract a lot of attention. As shoppers and families and potential adopters gather around, the most often asked questions are, “What breed is this puppy?” and “How big will he get?”

The answers are almost always, “We don’t know.” We can make educated guesses about the adult size based on the appearance of the puppy, but it’s impossible to know for certain. Dogs can surprise you by staying smaller than you expect, or by having a big growth spurt and getting huge.

So, for example, if an adopter has a size restriction in their apartment building –- say, no more than 25 pounds — I advise against a shelter puppy. Instead, you should consider a dog who has reached full maturity.

As for the breed question, shelter puppies don’t usually arrive with a pedigree, so there is guesswork involved. Often, we pull puppies or litters of puppies who were already weaned when dropped off at the shelter, and did not arrive with their Mom. We can only speculate what breeds are on both sides of the family tree. In some cases, though, we’ve pulled litters of nursing puppies along with their Moms, and wee offer that knowledge to potential adopters. But those litters have also yielded some fascinating glimpses into the mysteries of mixed-breed dog genetics.

Take Bella, a purebred blonde Cocker Spaniel we rescued. Her puppies were about three weeks old. Three of them looked like little Beagles, and one looked like a Miniature Dachshund! We might not have even guessed there was Cocker Spaniel in there if they’d arrived without their Mom.

Another example was lovely liver-colored Springer Spaniel Elli, who had a litter of speckled black-and-white puppies with dense short coats. Another litter came from a known Chihuahua Mom, but half the puppies looked like Chihuahuas, and half were much bigger — and fluffy! And so on and on.

The point is, looks can be deceiving when trying to determine the breed of a shelter puppy.

The idea is to adopt with an open mind. If you have “musts” for your dog, a shelter puppy might not be the way to go. A shelter puppy is a mystery wrapped in fur; she’s all potential. You don’t have the advantages of knowing her pedigree and the traits she is likely to inherit. In many cases, an adult dog may be a better bet.

This harks back to the old debate of nature vs. nurture. To a great extent, your adopted puppy will be just what you raise her to be. Once she’s in your home, you will influence and shape her through your nurturing. But nature does play a role, and many of the quirks (and sometimes serious issues) of genetics won’t be apparent until your dog reaches adolescence or maturity.

To compensate for not knowing your puppy’s family tree, make sure you are very attuned to her. Be observant and evaluate behaviors for what they are (rather than breed assumptions). As your puppy grows up, don’t let small behavior problems go unaddressed –- this formative time is your opportunity to correct those little issues before they become big issues.

It’s also imperative to start the puppy off with a great foundation in socialization and basic obedience. If such resources are available in your area, it’s a good idea to enroll in both puppy playtime/socialization classes and obedience classes, with a trainer you trust. That relationship with a trainer, who knows you and your dog, will be valuable if behavioral issues crop up later.

Raising a puppy requires a tremendous investment of time, effort, money, and commitment. Most likely, your shelter puppy will repay you a hundredfold as she blossoms into a great dog, with your guidance and care. There may be challenges along the way, but as she grows, you’ll appreciate her uniqueness and nuance more and more.

It’s wonderful to see who your shelter puppy becomes — it’s one of the most beautiful journeys you can take with a dog.

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