By Lisa King
Adopting a dog from a shelter is one of the best things you can do to save pets from euthanasia and enrich your life. Dogs usually end up in shelters through no fault of their own. Foreclosure or other financial hardship, a death in the family, a divorce, a move or any sort of life change can cause perfectly wonderful pets to be put in shelters.
Before you visit your local shelter, decide on the type of dog your family wants. Do you live in an apartment or do you have a big yard? Are you athletic or sedentary? Do you have children? How old are they? Do you already have other pets?
Adopting a puppy is problematic. They are unquestionably very cute and appealing, but it requires a tremendous amount of work to train them correctly and keep them out of trouble. It’s a lot like dealing with a toddler. In addition, you only have a vague idea of how big the puppy will get or what his adult temperament will be, especially if he is a mutt. Adopting an adult dog means most of the tough training has already been done; they are usually housebroken and know how to walk on a leash, they won’t get any bigger and their temperament is readily apparent.
Once you’ve decided on the type of dog you are looking for—large or small, docile or frisky, cuddly or independent—stick with your decision. If need be, take a hard-nosed friend with you to prevent your choosing that affectionate, adorable Saint Bernard mix instead of the lapdog you planned to adopt.
If this is your first dog and you’re not sure how to evaluate dog behavior, ask a knowledgeable dog person to come with you. If you don’t have any dog-savvy friends, hire a qualified animal behavior expert to accompany you to the shelter.
Keep in mind that behavioral problems are magnified in shelters. The dogs are frightened, they don’t get enough sleep and they are often unnerved by overwhelming smells and noises. Spend time alone with your potential dog. Most shelters let you visit with a dog in an area away from the kennels. Often, you can walk the dog around the shelter to see how he reacts to the leash. Look for a dog who is eager for your attention and responds positively to you.
The shelter staff is a great resource for learning about the temperament and energy level of each dog. Also ask about the dog’s history, how he interacts with people and other dogs and if he has any health issues. At a good shelter, the staff will ask you as many questions as you ask them to ensure you are a good match for the dog you want.
Bring all family members to meet the dog you are thinking of adopting. That includes dogs you already own. If you have cats, ask the shelter staff how the dog gets along with them. Most shelters test dogs for compatibility with cats before adopting them out.
If you don’t find Mr. Right on your first visit to the shelter, don’t worry. Sadly, new dogs arrive every day. Check the Internet for new arrivals in your area (Petfinder.com is a good resource, as is BestFriends.org) or return to the shelter periodically.
Don’t buy supplies until you have chosen your dog. Size matters when it comes to food and water bowls, collars and leashes, toys and beds. Also, purchase the same food the dog has been eating in the shelter; you can transition him to a higher-quality food once he gets used to his new home.
Choose a veterinarian before you bring your dog home. Take him in as soon as possible for a checkup. Your dog will most likely be neutered or spayed and be up to date on his shots.
If you’re still unsure of what type of dog you want, volunteer to walk dogs at your local shelter. You can even foster a dog to see if he is compatible with your family before making the commitment to adopt him. Chances are, once you bring a dog into your home, you and your family will fall in love with him—forever.
About the Author: Lisa King is a freelance writer living in Southern California. She is the former managing editor of Pet Product News International, Dogs USA, and Natural Dog magazines. Lisa is also the author of the well-received murder mystery novel “Death in a Wine Dark Sea.”