Save a Hound from the Pound: 10 Tips for First-Time Adopters

If you're ready to adopt a dog from a shelter, bless your heart. Now, memorize every word of this.


I adopted my very first shelter dog in 1994 from the ASPCA in New York City. Daisy the Pit Bull taught me a great deal about living with an adopted dog, but I’m still learning — even though my first and favorite canine “professor” left me for the Bridge in 2002. Today, as I look back on the many shelter dogs and rescues, past and present, who have changed my life for the better over the past 18 years, it occurs to me that I knew nothing of what to expect, so first-time dog adopters could use a helping paw. Are you getting ready to take the plunge and visit your local humane society or pound to save a hound? Here are some tips that I hope will prove helpful on the big day — and if I’ve left anything out, please let me know in the comments!

1. Critter Comforts

Before you head out the door, make a few minor adjustments to your home. Keep a stash of paper towels and less-toxic cleaning supplies (such as Seventh Generation or Ecover), plus a stain/odor extractor (my fave is Get Serious). Roll up the rugs; in case of accidental vomit (or any other unpleasant emission) upon your return home, a bare floor is infinitely easier to clean. Finally, set up a cozy dog bed for your new family member — and, if you plan to allow him or her to join you on the sofa, protect that furniture item with a slipcover or stain-resistant microfiber throw.

2. Plan of Action

Bring a slip lead. Since you don’t know your new dog’s collar size yet, a slip lead is a sensible temporary measure that combines an easily adjustable collar and leash. Later, you can keep it in your car or bag as an emergency backup tether.

After all the adoption papers are signed, take the long way home by going for an extra-long walk, perhaps stopping at a pet-supply store for a proper collar and leash plus some fun toys and treats. The idea is to tire out your new dog so that she wakes later in a warm new home thinking she’s dreaming! Also, “doo” bring something to scoop poop with. You’d be surprised how often a newly sprung shelter dog will “make” on that first walk home!

3. The Straight Poop

Speaking of poop, chances are you’ll want to upgrade your new best friend’s food, so his poop is the best and healthiest it can be. There are two ways to do this: Find out what food the dog was eating at the shelter, and buy a small amount of that food (or a different brand made from the same protein base, i.e., chicken or beef).

At the same time, buy a bigger supply of a more premium, grain-free brand and mix the two together, gradually increasing the amount of the premium brand over a few days. Or start the dog on a raw food diet from the get-go, and you won’t need to worry about a gradual diet change — raw is easy for most dogs to digest, yielding picture-perfect poops (and fewer of them). I’ve written some tips on firming up loose stools.

4. Surprise, Surprise

Prepare by doing your homework about the types of dog that would best suit your lifestyle — small or large, athletic or laid-back. Then prepare to be surprised!

Once upon a time, fashion designer John Bartlett went to North Shore Animal League America to look for a small dog, figuring he’d travel everywhere with his new, compact best friend tucked under his arm. If you’d asked him, he’d have told you he was definitely a little-dog person. However, the dog John came home with that day was a big, beautiful bruiser named Tiny Tim. John couldn’t have been happier with his unplanned parenthood, and never regretted the decision that destiny made for him!

5. Older Dogs Rule

Please don’t be too puppy-centric — remember that old friends make the best friends. It seems that everybody wants a puppy, so the sweet senior dogs are the most often overlooked at animal shelters. And yet, baby dogs, like human babies, are a handful — running after them is a full-time job. And then there’s the matter of housetraining!

Meanwhile, seniors are usually wonderfully mellow and fully housetrained, ready to blend seamlessly into your lifestyle, having long ago left behind puppyhood’s potentially destructive tendencies. Giving an older dog a new leash on life is incredibly rewarding — try it and see.

6. Black Is Beautiful

Like canine seniors, black dogs are routinely, universally bypassed by potential adopters. This is such a sadly widespread phenomenon that it has a name: Black Dog Syndrome.

Hey, Dogster readers — if everybody else is ignoring the dusky dogs, don’t you want to be different, unlike everybody else? Then why not strike one for the underdog by seeking out the black shelter dogs (and their feline compadres, the black cats)? You’ll be making a life-saving adoption statement. As the proud owner of many, many black dogs and cats over the years, I can wholeheartedly report that they are often the ones with the sweetest, most winning personalities.

7. Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep

Some shelter dogs suffer from demodectic mange, a pitiful-looking skin condition, which is quite common because of the immune system breakdown that often happens to homeless and/or abandoned dogs, as well as dogs that have been neglected and nutritionally deprived.

Remember, it is easily treated and not contagious to humans, so please don’t let it deter you from adopting. After a few weeks of quality food, plus immune-supportive supplements such as coconut oil and probiotics, and regular bathing with a pet shampoo containing Neem oil, you will see those mangey bald patches filling in with a vibrant, glorious haircoat — and you might feel like star stylist Louis Licari with his “Ambush Makeovers” on the Today show. Just think of your dog adoption as Extreme Makeover, Canine Edition!

8. Splish, Splash

Definitely bathe your shelter dog upon your arrival home (unless the dog is recovering from a spay/neuter procedure, in which case wait until she’s all healed up). A simple sudsing will remove any possible skin irritants (not to mention filth) that may be lurking in her fur. If not removed, those irritants could cause both you and dog to itch; plus, they don’t smell very nice.

This is equally good for the dog’s morale (a canine bath can be great bonding time, as long as it’s administered gently and followed up with a tasty treat) and for the atmosphere in your home.

9. Curing Kennel Cough

Some shelter dogs come down with kennel cough, but it is not — repeat, not — communicable to humans. Kennel cough is, however, highly contagious to other dogs, so stay away from the dog park for now. If you have other dogs at home, separate them initially by keeping the coughing dog in a separate room, or at the very least in a crate.

Since kennel cough cannot be passed from dog to cat, I always quarantine coughing canines with my felines until they’re feeling better. The shelter (or your vet) will probably send you home with a course of antibiotics, but take it from someone who’s treated dozens of kennel cough cases: To kick the cough, you also want to give the dog Umcka Cold Care. And, just as you do when you are taking antibiotics, remember to prevent yeast buildup by giving your dog a probiotic two hours after the antibiotic (but never at the same time, or they cancel each other out).

10. Mood Music

The noise in a typical shelter environment — especially a crowded, urban shelter — is not music to a dog’s ears. Make the atmosphere in your home as restful and un-shelter-like as possible by setting the mood with music to help your new friend de-stress.

Gentle, classical tunes, such as lullabies by Brahms, are just the ticket. Or check out the soothing CDs recorded by harpist Susan Raimond. These are designed specifically to calm anxious animals, and they really work, harnessing the key of G to, in Susan’s words, “soothe a savage beast.” Just don’t play these CDs while driving, or you risk falling asleep at the wheel — no joke.

Top Photo: Golden Retriever via Shutterstock

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