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How to Choose a Dog from a Shelter

There may come a time when you choose to adopt a dog over going to a breeder – this is how to approach that scenario

It’s an unfortunate reality that animal shelters and humane societies are full of dogs that are in desperate need of a good home. While their backgrounds and genetic composition are probably unknown, shelter dogs can make wonderful companions—provided that you do your homework and make a wise selection based on fact and not emotion.

Assess your needs and lifestyle

This first step is the most critical of all the steps in choosing a dog from a shelter: you must be honest with yourself about your lifestyle and what you can reasonably accommodate for your canine companion. Don’t assess what you want or hope to do, but be realistic about what your daily life looks like.

All dogs need exercise, but their requirements vary based on age and breed. Don’t pick out a high-energy hunting dog because you’d like to someday get into jogging. Make sure that you can realistically provide the dog with a lifestyle that is appropriate to his or her energy needs. 

Are you gone for most of the day while you’re at work? Do you work from home and can easily spend time each day throwing a ball or frisbee on your lunch break? These factors—and more—will dictate whether you’ll have a happy, tired dog or a neurotic mess with unspent energy.

Research the shelter itself

Not all shelters and humane societies are created equal. Before committing to many years of a canine companion, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting one from a reputable place that provides appropriate medical and social care for each of the animals.

Look online for reviews and, if possible, get recommendations from friends and family. Call a local veterinarian to see if they recommend any particular shelters. Oftentimes, veterinary clinics host their own rescues.

Depending on how long the dog has been in the shelter, the shelter’s operation can have a large impact on their health and well-being. Make sure you’re choosing to support a facility that is responsible, does appropriate vetting of potential adopters, and cares for the animals in a healthy manner. 

Visit the shelter to meet the dogs

Once you’ve selected a few reputable places, go visit them in person.

Go with the mindset of evaluating the facility—not picking out a dog—so that you won’t be distracted by all the cute dogs begging to be adopted. Assess the kennels to ensure that the dogs are kept in sanitary conditions. Ask about veterinary care and whether they have a socializing program for the dogs. Are the dogs taken out of the kennels for walks and other one-on-one attention? Do they have a foster program for dogs that aren’t thriving in the kennel environment?

All of these factors should help build the picture of what kind of experience a dog has while staying at the rescue facility.

Understand the possible breeds or types that make up the dog

By now you’ve decided where you’re willing to adopt a dog from and, most likely, there are a few dogs tugging on your heartstrings. Here’s where you really have to set aside your emotions and make a level-headed decision about the right dog for you.

The shelter will have identified likely breeds that form the dog’s mix but understand that this is usually a rough guess at best. Unless they personally know the story of the dog’s conception and birth, anything else is pure speculation.

You may, however, at least be able to determine a rough classification of the dog. A shepherd-like appearance is a clue that the dog comes from working or herding breeds and will need a job or purpose in order to be happy and mentally balanced. A large, muscular build suggests a guardian or working background, which also requires a commitment to providing the dog with meaningful work. Long, lean dogs are likely running or hunting breeds, meaning they’ll need space to run and lots of ways to expend their energy. Small dogs aren’t exempt from this, either—for example, terrier types are born to hunt and will drive you crazy in the house if they aren’t given an opportunity to exercise their bodies and minds.

Bottom line, don’t try to work against the genetic makeup of the dog. If you can’t reasonably accommodate a high-energy dog, don’t ignore the signs that suggest your favorite shelter dog is a four-legged vessel of pent-up energy. 

Ask about any known history of the dog

Ask the shelter staff for any known history of the dog(s) you’re considering. An owner-surrendered dog should have some information such as whether or not they are good with kids and other animals, or whether they need to be an only dog. Stray dogs won’t have the benefit of any known background, but if they’ve been at the shelter for a while or in a foster home, the staff should be able to provide some honest input as to the dog’s personality and tendencies.

Just because a dog wasn’t successful in one household doesn’t mean he can’t be successful in yours. Shelter dogs can be wonderful companions and working dogs, provided that they are given ample opportunity to adjust to a new house and a new set of rules. Be patient and forgiving of their mistakes as they adjust, but also be firm and consistent in setting and enforcing your house rules. A dog with consistent rules will soon learn what to expect and what is expected of him, which can go a long way in creating a well-balanced companion.

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